Years ago, I made the decision to be open about my personal life – even in the workplace.
Coming out was a journey that started small. However, the first time I recall being out to all my coworkers, I was a 30-year-old counsel for Pacific Gas & Electric’s nuclear plants in California. Since then, at corporations such as NextEra and General Electric, I have been open about being gay and vocal on LGBTQ issues.
But it wasn’t until I was recruited by PSEG that I chose to be completely open during the interview process. The experience was surprising and gratifying, and can be illustrated by one exceptional sentence: As Tammy Linde, PSEG’s General Counsel, extended my offer to join PSEG as its Chief Compliance Officer, she made clear that she hoped she was hiring more than a lawyer.
“We want you to bring your full self to work,” she told me.
I had never heard that during a hiring process. Linde’s remarkable words went beyond “we accept you.” They emphasized that my personal life made me valuable as a colleague, too.
Obviously, I took the job. I started in April, and I feel extremely fortunate to be part of the PSEG family.
To get a sense of what it’s like for many LGBTQ employees in the workplace, try this exercise: First, erase all signs of your family life from your workspace. No photos, no mementos. Next, scrub gender-specific words from your conversations. Eliminate “he” or “she.” It isn’t easy. If you talk about your weekend plans, be careful not to drop any clues about the people you will spend them with.
Imagine this and you may begin to understand, in a small way, our closeted coworkers’ experience.
For all the recent social progress on issues important to the LGBTQ community, gay people still struggle with the decision to be out at work.
Nationwide, more than half of LGBTQ employees are open only to a select few coworkers – or none at all. Eighty percent of young people who are openly gay with family and friends choose not to do so at work. Maybe they worry about stereotyping, losing connections with friends and coworkers or hurting their chances for advancement.
Coming out is a deeply personal choice. However, a workplace with a closeted culture is a less happy, less proud place to be. And the cost of the closet has real, negative impacts on the bottom line.
Our coworkers should feel that they can be out and appreciated, and that they will be judged on the quality of their work alone. Of course, anyone may choose to keep details of their personal lives to themselves, for any reason – but it should not be over worries that their careers will suffer if they choose to live openly.
Here at PSEG, we can and should be proud of our company’s diversity and inclusion journey.
We should take pride in our Gay and Lesbian Alliances employee group (GaLA), which has been helping create a safe, inclusive work environment at PSEG for more than a decade. I’m a member, and so are many of our straight co-workers.
We should be proud of the company’s support for LGBTQ organizations, such as Jersey Pride, Garden State Equality and the New Jersey LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
We should certainly be proud of our network of allies who support – and, in many cases, advocate on behalf of – their LGBTQ coworkers.
Being an ally is about more than simple acceptance. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and understanding what others might be going through. At its best, being an ally is about advocating for people who aren’t always able to advocate for themselves.
And we should be grateful for coworkers such as Workforce Development Manager Sally Nadler, who was openly gay and advocating for LGBTQ colleagues long before it was widely accepted. (Sally retired in July after 38 years.) Her courage, at a time when it was professionally risky, is an inspiration. Without people like Sally, people like me could not exist.
As a visible and openly gay employee, I feel a responsibility to show others that they, too, can have a meaningful career, climb the corporate ladder and, at the same time, be authentic about who they are and whom they love.
Progressive employers understand that, when they make a new hire, they’re getting more than a resume. They’re hiring the whole person. In my case, I consider myself fortunate that PSEG recognized that many things – my Puerto Rican heritage, my compliance expertise and even my husband, Brian – contribute to who I am, my full self, and that it all brings value to the workplace.
Antonio Fernández- Chief Compliance Officer, PSEG