Scroll To Top
Print Issue

This Expert Helps HIV-Positive Folks Fight Workplace Discrimination


Here is diversity expert Brian McComak's advice for weathering hostile situations while on the clock.

Brian McComak spends his days helping businesses look more like America — a true mix of races, genders, and identities — as founder and CEO of the consulting firm Hummingbird Humanity. McComak, whose book, Humanity in the Workplace: A Blueprint for Building an Inclusive & Equitable Company Culture, is set for release this year, says diversity also includes those living with HIV, as he is. We connected with McComak on the uncomfortable process of coming out about your status at work and what to do when the reception is less than positive.

When you came out to friends and coworkers about your HIV status, you described the situation as stressful. What are some tips to make it smoother? I still remember the anxiety I felt about sharing my HIV status and the worrying about what others would think. It’s become easier to share my status with time, with experience, and with the work I’ve done in therapy. Secrets have power — I take away that power when I choose to share my status, particularly when I share it to help others. If I were to offer one suggestion — work with a therapist to find peace with your diagnosis. Through that work, you might even find strength in owning your story.

What would you say to people who have irrational or unfounded fears after hearing about your HIV status? I’ll admit that I sometimes feel frustrated, hurt, or even angry when someone expresses their fears or concerns to me after hearing about my HIV status. I try to pause before saying anything and remember what it was like when I first learned about my HIV status. I was full of emotion — including fear, anger, disappointment, shame — and it took me time to process those emotions. I try to extend that grace to others and say, “It took me awhile to process this news too, and I’m thankful for the friends and therapists who helped me through it.” If I want to help, I will also offer to share some information with them — like a website, article, or resource — or point them in a direction that would answer their questions. What’s right for me may not be right for you, though — and that’s OK. We each navigate the journey with our status in our own way to protect our well-being.

What should one do if their boss is hostile after discovering their HIV status? f your boss reacts adversely to you sharing this news, I’d first like to say I’m sorry and you’re not alone. It’s not OK for a boss, or coworker, to treat you differently because of your HIV status. In that moment, it can feel scary and, while you are definitely not alone, it can feel like you are. If you feel comfortable, it’s OK to say to your boss or colleague, “it hurt when you said that,” or “that doesn’t feel good to hear.” I also encourage you to write down what happened as specifically as possible, including who was there, what was said, the date and time, so you have it to reference later if needed. And ask for help — from your HR department, your company’s hotline for employee issues, the EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a trusted mentor, your therapist, or someone else in the HIV community.

Your career and new book center on building inclusive workplaces. Why is that important? Creating human-centered workplaces that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable, and where humans thrive is both the right thing to do and it’s good for business. People are required for every company or organization to exist and to function. If your people feel included, valued, like they belong, and if they believe they are seen and heard, they will be more engaged and they’ll do their best, and often go above and beyond to contribute to the organization’s success. It’s also important to recognize that the demographics of the United States are changing and embracing diversity, which is often a driver for innovation and will be necessary [for businesses] to be competitive in the domestic and international marketplace.

How are you keeping your mental and physical health strong during this difficult, confusing time? The pandemic has been a challenging time for most, if not all, of us. My mental and physical health have been impacted. Some days are better than others. There are those days I give myself permission to just “be” — which might be taking a nap or watching TV or eating my favorite food. I remind myself it’s OK to have a tough day. I’ve also tried to take active steps to ask for help and build community. I returned to talk therapy, hosted virtual game nights with friends, and started taking a daily walk with a neighbor. I also make a conscious effort to make my bed every morning and maintain my self-care routines in the morning and before bed. For me, taking small steps are the key to staying centered and taking care of my overall well-being. 

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Neal Broverman