June 15, 2021 By Jessica Gordon 5 min read

When a young IBM employee from Eastern Europe contacted Axel Wedler to find support before coming out as HIV-positive to his managers, it was a reminder of why the work Wedler and his team do is so meaningful.

“Sometimes circumstances around the globe are quite different, sometimes not everything is accepted as it is elsewhere, and sometimes, what was accepted can change, because of political or cultural motives,” Wedler told Industrious in an interview. “It’s important to be able to support people at work even if they cannot always find that support outside of work.”

The employee Wedler was helping was justifiably concerned to be open about a sensitive issue given recent political shifts in the employee’s country. Sharing one’s HIV status can be a challenge even in the best circumstances, and people do it for lots of reasons.

They may be sharing with colleagues to help explain a medical leave or appointment, to find support at a challenging time or simply to build awareness of a misunderstood condition. In fact, one of the biggest ongoing stigmas around HIV status, Wedler said, is that colleagues may make incorrect assumptions about someone’s sexuality or their responsibility for contracting the virus.

“It really puts a big burden on your shoulders,” Wedler said. Being able to unburden oneself with colleagues—to be one’s authentic self at work—can strengthen not only the worker but the entire team.

For the IBMer Axel was counseling, that was exactly the case: disclosing his health status to his manager could not have gone better. “It was no problem at all,” Wedler said. “And in fact, he will come out to more IBMers connected to his work at a local internal IBM Pride event in June.”

After years working in strategy and change management at IBM Services and elsewhere, Wedler has turned his passionate advocacy for HIV positivity into a full-time job. In January 2021, Wedler took on a full-time position to globally roll out the #workingpositively program. Wedler, who is based in Hamburg, Germany, now helps IBM and its business partners foster inclusivity and fight stigmatization for HIV-positive employees. The #workingpositively initiative is part of IBM’s Global Marketplace Diversity team.

“It’s not about sharing any health information within the program,” Wedler said, stressing that any disclosures are purely voluntary. “It’s just about de-stigmatization.”

It’s a struggle for recognition and support that Wedler knows all too well.

An uncertain journey

In 2004, Wedler disclosed to his own manager, Gregor Pillen, that he was HIV-positive following a hospitalization. He had no guarantee of a supportive reaction.

“Even 17 years later, it’s a very emotional moment for me to talk about,” Wedler said in an interview with Deutsche Aidshilfe. “I remember it was a rainy Friday afternoon, so the climate was very much what I was feeling.”

The #workingpositively program was started by IBM, SAP and the German AIDS Foundation.

Wedler, who had worked with Pillen at their previous company PwC, knew Pillen to be a focused yet warmhearted boss. Pillen was the first person outside of Wedler’s immediate family that he told about his condition. “It was a very big step for me to be open, and the only reason why I was able to do it was that I had full trust in Gregor,” Wedler said.

Wedler said after the conversation, “I would’ve liked to hug Gregor.” In fact, his colleagues at IBM handled the news better than Wedler’s own family. “I was received amazingly positively by senior leadership at IBM [upon coming out],” Wedler said.

Such reactions are central to Wedler and his team’s belief in the #workingpositively program. It not only helps individuals and society with the destigmatization of a longstanding health issue. It also took an existing bond within the team and made it stronger.

Part of the reason to promote programs like #workingpositively is it gives both workers and their teams more confidence to work openly and trust one another professionally and personally.

“The team effect is really large,” said Marijn Pijnenburg, leader of the Global Marketplace Diversity team. “It gives people the confidence that if they have an issue, any kind of issue, they can be more open about it, too, and bring their full self to work.”

Positive progress

Media and culture have come a long way since the 1993 depiction of an AIDS patient in the Tom Hanks-starring Philadelphia. In fact, when TV icon Jonathan Van Ness openly disclosed his HIV-positive status in his 2019 memoir Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, it was not only accepted, but, as Van Ness might say, necessary to his truth.

But when it comes to a major corporation’s point-of-view on employees’ health status, there’s no singular standard. Depending on the country, industry and culture, coming out as HIV positive could be met with exclusion, stigmatization or even job loss.

IBM, however, has set a precedent of support and inclusion through its long-standing history of diversity and inclusion management. It continues to encourage other organizations to follow not only through activism but active projects.

Wedler is based in Hamburg, Germany, but he hopes his work will have a global impact. (Photo: Niklas Ohlrogge via Unsplash)

Begun in Germany in 2019 as an initiative by IBM, SAP and the German AIDS Foundation, the #workingpositively initiative lets HIV-positive employees know they can disclose their health status without fear or discrimination. Employers never request or expect disclosures, they simply signal the assurance of safety and protection for employees who do want to be open with their health status.

To date, more than 200 employers in Germany, Austria and the US have signed the pledge to end HIV discrimination in the workplace. Throughout 2021, the program will roll out with IBM to 13 countries in South America, and in August 2021, to Australia and New Zealand. And Wedler hopes to expand the program to Asia and Africa over the next two years.

The program is now controlled by the German AIDS foundation, a sort of “open-source inclusion program,” as Pijnenburg put it, that is meant to encourage as many organizations as possible to get involved.

Beyond the virus

When COVID-19 became a global pandemic a year ago, Wedler feared it would stall #workingpositively efforts, but in fact, it’s been the opposite.

“COVID 19 has given people much more sensitivity about how quickly stigmatization and discrimination can happen to anyone,” Wedler explained. “If somebody has a cold on the street, people look at him and think, ‘Oh he might have COVID.’ If someone has darker skin or looks Asian, they look at him and might pass two meters away. Everyone can see nowadays how quickly stigma can happen. And it opens the hearts and minds to people talking about it.”

The program has become a benchmark for other programs in IBM, and other companies have been encouraged to get involved. The biggest impact so far, Wedler said, has been in politics. In Germany, the ministries of Defense, Labor and Health have signed the pledge—three of the most important and influential government agencies. And in Austria, nearly half of the Austrian government has also signed the pledge.

Yet it’s the personal stories that resonate most. “I would never give anyone the advice ‘You must come out with your disease,’” Wedler said. “It’s a very personal decision.” But, he said, it’s the fear associated with disclosure that can ruin one’s life. “My message is to get rid of your fears. Get rid of everything that concerns you. Hiding is the worst way of handling things”

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