Most people have a hard time coming out to their families, let alone to people at work. A lot of people living with HIV are scared about how others will perceive them or will react to the news that they have HIV. In my case, there have only been a few instances when I’ve cared what people think of me, and when I do care it never really works out to my benefit.
The day I found out I had HIV was also the same day that my 2nd boss (2nd because there’s someone else I directly report to) and the VP of our department were arriving from Manila. There were supposed to be in the city for department reviews, and I knew I’d get fucked because my team wasn’t doing so well. I guess one of the reasons I wanted to tell them right away was because I hadn’t fully recovered from the shock of finding out I was HIV+ and I didn’t have the energy to put up with their yelling, but the main reason was because I had to tell them that I wanted to move back to Manila as soon as possible. I had decided that I wanted to spend as much time with my family as I could, and treatments and tests are more readily available in Manila anyway, so I needed to tell my bosses that I wanted to move back because since I am handling a whole team at work, they would need to know right away that they had to find someone to replace me.
I decided to tell them that I had HIV and not give some generic “medical reasons” as to why I needed to go back to Manila because to be honest even I think it’s bullshit when someone says that they’re leaving their job for “medical reasons”. “Medical reasons” usually just means that they’ve found a higher paying job at another company and don’t want to be caught violating the non-compete clause of their contract. I needed to tell them specifically that I had HIV so that there would be no questions about the “medical reasons”, and so they wouldn’t ask for a medical certificate, and so that they wouldn’t try to stop me if I needed to leave. Honestly really is the best policy, and even though my bosses aren’t the easiest people to work with, my health was more important than their opinion of me.
The first person I talked to was my 2nd boss. When I walked into his cabin he was sitting at his laptop looking pissed, and I knew he was about to scream at me over my team’s performance. He didn’t even look up at first, but whatever. I started by saying OK, I wanna talk about something personal that I know shouldn’t affect work but it probably will. He chuckled like OK here we go again, then I told him. I have HIV. He stopped typing and looked up. He was shocked. I said, I found out just today cuz I got tested, and I haven’t even told my Mom yet (at this point I started crying and my voice was breaking), but I wanted to tell you because I’ve decided to go back to Manila to be closer to my family. I don’t know when I need to be back, I haven’t had the chance to completely think things through, but I wanted to tell you as soon as I found out earlier. I’m going to tell our VP later too.
I’ve honestly never really liked my 2nd boss. He’s your typical aggressive frat boy who doesn’t care what people think of him. During my first meeting after I had told him I was looking forward to working with someone who would help guide my team, he said I’m not going to be on your side, I’m going to be the one who’ll kick your ass until things get done. Clearly it wasn’t a good start, so I wasn’t expecting him to focus on anything other than work after I had told him my news. I was not expecting him to react in the way he actually did, which was surprisingly compassionate and human. He asked how I was doing, he told me not to worry about work because the issues were around before I was and they would get fixed anyway, and he said that yeah of course you should be in Manila to be closer to your family and to get the best treatments. He said hey man, don’t worry too much because HIV is not what it used to be, and God wouldn’t give you any problems that you can’t handle, let us know how we can help you and try not to stress out to much. In the end I think I was more shocked at how supportive his reaction was than how shocked he was at my news.
Later that evening I told my VP. Now, my VP is an Indian, and since their culture is more conservative I wasn’t quite sure how he would handle the news. He was very stoic when I told him. His first question was how did I want him to act. Should he act as if he knew that I was HIV+ or should he act as if he didn’t. I didn’t really know how to respond, so I said can I have time to think about it. He said he wanted to ask in case it came up later. Then he asked if I was required to report my status to the company and I said no because Philippine law is very strict when it comes to the confidentiality of HIV patients. In the back of my mind I was also thinking if you ever tell anyone I’m so fucking suing this company. Then we focused on the timeline of when I was planning to go back to Manila, and I said I wasn’t sure yet because I only found out today and I haven’t had time to think. After all the work related stuff he asked how I was doing mentally, and I said I think I’m OK. He thanked me for telling him and I left his office.
After I left I felt that the meeting was a bit awkward, but I told myself that I can’t expect everyone to be all cuddly and warm after telling them I had HIV, especially at the office. My VP texted a few minutes later saying he hoped I would be OK, and I said thanks. We didn’t talk again until around a week later when he asked how I was doing and if I had already made plans around moving back to Manila. I said I’m fine, no I haven’t made up my mind yet but I really hope to move back soon. He said hmmm, let me think. Maybe there’s a way for us to help you move to Manila without you leaving the company. We have sites in Carmona and Cubao that need to be managed, and we have a project with the HR team that you could oversee. Would that be OK with you? Would that be far from where you live? Please don’t leave just yet, wait for me to work something out for you.
I was shocked. I said wow, I really appreciate you doing this for me. He said, hey no problem buddy. Then he gave me a huge list of work-related stuff that he wanted from me. As soon as I put the phone done I was like wow, I thought my VP didn’t care but he went out of his way, which he didn’t have to do, just for me stay in the company and still be able to move back to Manila. At that point I had also been worrying financially because my current job pays me really well, and if I lost my job it would really hurt me especially now that insurance won’t cover any of my illnesses moving forward. The idea of being able to keep my salary and still move back was more than I could ever ask for. Even if my VP eventually wouldn’t be able to have me move to the other sites, the fact that he even considered trying to help me out was overwhelming. I was crying at my work station for a few minutes after that call.
It is very difficult to tell people that you have HIV, especially at first. Yes it’s true, you can never really tell how people will react. But at the same time, you shouldn’t always assume that they will react in a negative manner. You would be surprised at how compassionate people can actually be. There’s a whole lot of bad out in the world, but the good always outweighs it. Don’t deprive people the chance to show that they’re human too.