SAP employee Joerg Beissel is open about having HIV and uses it as a means of supporting a company initiative that seeks to prevent discrimination against those who are HIV-positive.

The initial diagnosis was a shock; the period that followed, a process of self-discovery. For two long years, Beissel, a senior facility specialist in Global Real Estate and Facilities at SAP, struggled with the idea of telling his colleagues at work that he had contracted HIV. A conversation with his manager would prove both enlightening and liberating.

“You’re Fine Just the Way You Are”

Photo via Joerg Beissel

Beissel still feels grateful when he remembers how his manager took the news. “He jumped up, gave me a big hug, and thanked me for the tremendous amount of trust I’d showed him,” he recalls. Bolstered by this reaction, Beissel opened up to more and more colleagues and discovered how much weight was falling off his shoulders. Notwithstanding the personal shame one might feel, being HIV-positive is not a medically relevant concern in most working environments. In fact, transmission is virtually impossible when those with the virus are undergoing therapy.

For all that time, it was the fear of discrimination based on irrational misgivings about contracting HIV, or outdated ideas of what living with it is like, that kept Beissel silent.

He now talks about the pressure he put on himself at work before making his condition known when he often pushed past his own personal limits. These days, he can be himself again. “HIV no longer affects my professional life, at least in terms of how I’ve regained that sense of freedom,” Beissel says. “It’s given me back my creativity.”

His personal decision to take this step ultimately motivated Beissel to address the subject of HIV publicly in society – and at the office in particular. Along with Ernesto Marinelli, global human resources business partner lead for Global Customer Operations and head of Human Resources Business Partners for EMEA North, EMEA South, MEE, and Greater China Region, he signed an employer declaration on behalf of SAP against the discrimination of HIV-positive people in the workplace on June 12. That made him the company’s first ‘positive face’ of the condition.

“Exclusion is what you do yourself for the most part”

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“Exclusion is what you do yourself for the most part”

A Cross-Company Campaign Promoting Respect for Those with HIV

The #positivarbeiten (‘working positive’) initiative was launched by the support organization Deutsche Aidshilfe, in cooperation with SAP and IBM. Additional companies, including Deutsche Bank, DAK, Deutsche Bahn, and Daimler have joined this movement as an official commitment to ensure that those with HIV are treated with respect and without prejudice in the workplace. The goal of the initiative is to address shortcomings in people’s knowledge of the subject. When they are diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, people with HIV can live and work just like everyone else. They are just as capable and can pursue any profession they choose.

Beissel’s condition isn’t a significant issue for his team either. “My working relationship with Joerg hasn’t changed at all since I learned he has HIV,” reports Hilger Brenken. “I trust him just as much as before and don’t have any reservations about working with him.”

“I have a vision of a working environment where discrimination is no longer an issue,” says Marinelli. “We don’t fear diversity because diversity means innovation. For us, HIV is just one of many different facets.”

“SAP stands for inclusion. A working environment without stigmatization is our priority. With our commitment to this initiative, we want to send a positive signal for respectful interaction,” says Luka Mucic, member of the Executive Board and chief financial officer of SAP SE.

According to a study by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 36.9 million people around the world were living with HIV as of the end of 2017. Of that number, 75 percent were aware of their condition, and 21.7 million had access to HIV medication. Since the epidemic began, 77.3 million people have contracted the virus.

For a long time, the fear of exclusion prevented Beissel from being true to himself. That’s why he now feels compelled to make himself available, offer his assistance, and dispel false preconceptions. As his own experience has shown, people’s knowledge of HIV can vary a great deal throughout society. “At the time I was diagnosed, I myself didn’t know much about the virus or what it would mean for me and my life,” he explains, adding that this is why continuous education is so important.

“It’s Always About Putting One Foot in Front of the Other”

Meanwhile, Beissel has the support of not only his employer, but those in his private life as well. “He’ll always be our Joerg,” says Eva Best, one of the facility specialist’s friends. “Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma that comes with HIV, even though it’s been some time since it was a death sentence,” points out another acquaintance, Sascha Ulrich. Joerg’s family is also behind him and his mission. “You can’t just avoid talking about the subject or try to forget about it,” declares Hardy, his father.

While HIV can’t be cured yet, treatment is possible these days. People undergoing the necessary therapy typically take one or two pills per day and have check-ups every three months. In most cases, they experience almost no limitations in their abilities or quality of life. Thanks to his medication, Beissel was already under the detection threshold just three months after his diagnosis. This means that the amount of genetic HIV material, or ‘viral load,’ in his blood was no longer sufficient to put other people at risk of contracting the virus. The official term used is ‘U=U,’ or undetectable = untransmittable, which is a fact that was scientifically proven in 2008 – but still remains largely unknown today.

Having trained to be a gardener, in his current role Beissel is responsible for looking after green spaces and designing outdoor areas at SAP locations all across Germany. His main work location, the company’s headquarters in Walldorf, includes 330,000 square meters of outdoor space that needs tending. Beissel goes on to talk about how he loves his job and the opportunities it gives him to express his creativity.

“I don’t want any special status; like everybody else, I just want to be who I am – a person, a colleague, a friend,” he explains. This is exactly what his working environment makes possible at SAP. Beissel describes simply being his old self again after revealing his condition as one of the best feelings he’s had. Looking back has helped him come to a revelation: “Having the chance to be truly free, honest, and authentic is the only way you can really excel at your job.”

To support this campaign, use the hashtag #positivarbeiten.