Steph Davidson had always been an extrovert. The 40-year-old content manager thrives on being around her people, and has large social circles in her home city of Toronto. In her early thirties, she started wondering: what if she brought that energy into her dating life? She started contemplating trying polyamory in her early thirties during a period of casual dating, then tried it out for a year pre-pandemic. (Polyamory is the ability to have multiple consensual romantic or sexual relationships, or date someone who does.) Since 2022, she’s completely embraced polyamory and can’t see returning to monogamy. “I love seeing the people I love happy, and I get to spend time with even more wonderful folks,” she says. “I had seen how freeing it was for people I knew, and it just really felt right for the connections I was seeking. The longer I practice and the more people I meet, the more it feels like the way I'm meant to live.”
Davidson works at a health startup. She had always been out at work as queer, but outing herself as polyamorous was a new one for her. Thankfully, it was stress-free. “I didn't have an official 'coming out' moment,” she says. “I tend to bring it up in conversation when it feels right. I'll mention that my partner has another partner. Just like being openly queer, it's just about bringing my authentic self to the workplace.” She also is happy to answer coworker questions about the relationship style.
Davidson is just one of the rising number of Canadian folks who have practiced non-monogamy or identify as polyamorous. There aren’t many large-scale studies on what percentage of the population IDs this way, but a 2018 Ipsos poll discovered that about 4% of people in a relationship are in an open one. Over the past few years, many corporations have rushed to create or overhaul existing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, creating policies and impact networks to support their underrepresented employees. Non-monogamous relationship styles, however, can still feel a little taboo in many workplaces. Relationship styles are not protected under the law the same way sexual orientation is, so an employee could, in theory, be terminated for their relationship style.
Being poly isn’t usually that problematic for poly folk themselves, according to Elisabeth A. Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door: the bigger issue is often others’ reactions to them being poly. “Planning for potential reactions and managing them once they have happened can be exhausting for polyamorous people who come out to others. Polyamory can be a problem at work because of the costs that come with hiding and the potential to experience employment-based discrimination,” Sheff wrote in Psychology Today in 2017. “Hiding who you are—sexually, relationally, religiously, gender identity, or any other deep element of the self—takes a significant toll. Keeping silent when everyone else is discussing their weekends with their date/spouse/kids feels terrible and erasing, and it can also make you seem stuck up or arrogant to coworkers who do not understand your reticence. Failing to make or losing social contacts at work cannot feel lonely and isolating, but can also cost opportunities for advancement that come with informal social alliances in the workplace.”
Élan*, an Ottawa IT manager in her mid-fifties, initially only told a few trusted colleagues at work about her poly status — then she had a terrible situation with one of her partners. “I emailed my manager and told her I was in an emotional crisis, and could not face coming into work,” she says, but she didn’t feel comfortable disclosing the full truth. A few years later, in a different job, she decided to come out to her boss. “Such a great decision! Not having to create cover stories or refer to a lover as a ‘friend’ was amazing,” she says. “I hadn’t realized how much stress I was carrying about not being honest.” The next time she had a bad break-up, all she had to do was call her boss and say “N and I broke up; I need a few days” — and she got all the support she needed.
Many newer companies are at least trying to be more welcoming and supportive of poly folks. “I've been very lucky that it hasn't been an issue at all,” Davidson says. The closest she’s come to poly drama in the workplace was during the holiday season. Davidson has an anchor partner—her main partner at the moment—who has an anchor partner of their own (that makes them Davidson’s metamour, or meta for short). “We narrowly missed a scheduling issue with my meta, whose holiday party was the night before,” Davidson says. She was able to bring her partner to the holiday party, where her relationship status came up; coworkers were eager to ask about it, and Davidson was eager to share her experience with the relationship style.
As a startup veteran, Davidson has always felt comfortable being open about her private life. She thinks that the type of workplace you work at “absolutely matters” in terms of how comfortable one might be in sharing their personal life, whether it’s on a personal level (will your conservative coworker get weirded out?) or a professional one (could your romance turn into an HR issue?). “I work at a startup with a great culture, but more traditional workplaces can be more of a challenge,” she says. “Not everyone has the ability to be out at work, whether it's about polyamory, their sexuality, or something else that may impact how their workplace treats them. I'm lucky to be able to, but I also respect people for making their own choices.”
For Toronto-based digital marketing strategist Nick (last name withheld), 27, being poly is a key part of their life. “Allowing connections with new people to evolve without expectations or limitations is important to me,” they say. “The communication quality that comes with open relationship structures is a must for me now.” They have a "nesting" partner that they live with, plus ongoing romantic partners who are friends or partners with both them and their nesting partner. It isn’t important for them, however, to be out at work as someone who is in an open relationship. “Neither me or my partners would be offended for being introduced as a friend when the social situation doesn’t ask for a long story about how we all got here,” they say. “If I’m having a conversation over a drink after work I normally won’t hide it, but I don’t really find the discussion hard to avoid. I feel like it would come up more if I traveled somewhere with a partner who I don’t live with, or if I lived with two partners. Logistically if I mention going on dates people mostly assume it’s with my partner they have seen in Zoom call backgrounds.” They also think that, as someone who presents as male, they would get hassled less than poly gals would, as femme folks are vulnerable to slut-shaming or getting hit on by coworkers who see them as wild women.
They feel that biases like these and others against poly folks will most likely persist for a long time, although acceptance is hearteningly high in the tech and marketing fields. (Davidson also works in tech and marketing.) One way poly folks can support their own mental health in the workplace? Choose to work for companies with strong demonstrated support for underrepresented communities. This could potentially help ameliorate any sense of erasure or censure for their relationship style. “Try to understand how a workplace might be supportive during the hiring stage,” suggests Stephanie Bergman, a senior HR and DEI consultant with Bright + Early. “As much as they're interviewing you, you're also interviewing them.” And once you work there, determine who is supportive—and be clear with your needs. “If and when a workplace policy doesn't work or doesn't support you, share feedback!” Bergman says. “In my experience, people want to create amazing company experiences but without feedback they can't know what to change.” Employees should also be mindful of working with their employer to accommodate their extra partners; you don’t want to, say, roll up to the holiday party with three partners in tow without clearing the extra guests with management first.
On the employer side, companies who want to be supportive should educate themselves on different relationship styles to ensure that folks who live this way are not discriminated against in their workplace, whether it’s rude coworkers or quashed networking opportunities. “Additional education to reduce underlying bias never hurts. If a workplace wanted to put effort into destigmatizing open-relationship structures, I would be in full support of it,” Nick says. There is, thankfully, a growing number of companies who have started this work, taking different relationship styles into account when formulating their policies, according to Bergman. “I've luckily instead been able to work with clients to try to create processes that are inclusive from the get-go,” she says.
Benefits, however, are a different story. “I’ve had a much harder time with finding vendors, such as benefits providers, that are flexible and inclusive,” Bergman says. Davidson struggles with this issue. “As a poly person who lives alone, not being able to access my partner's much better benefits is something I think about. There can definitely be a fiscal disadvantage,” she says. Élan also yearns for the ability to add all partners to a benefits plan, and a more inclusive plan definition of family or family leave. Bergman has been working to help companies provide alternative options: “the main solution I've seen has been providing a cash value of a plan to allow for the employee or their partner(s) to purchase individual plans that meet their needs,” she says. Davidson is hopeful for a brighter future ahead. “I would love to see employers think about benefits for alternative families,” she says. “And what ‘spouse’ really means.”
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of Élan’s non-out partners and metas.