Expecting employees to hide their sexuality at work can have negative consequences.
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Employers that impose a "Don't ask, don't tell" type of policy in the workplace are hurting their employees' chances of succeeding, new research suggests.
A study by researchers at The University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business and Cornell University found that the consequences of being forced to keep information concealed, such as one's sexual orientation, extend beyond emotional strife. It disrupts an employee's basic skills and abilities, including intellectual acuity and physical strength. All of these skills, researchers say, are critical to workplace success.
The study's author, UC Berkeley assistant professor Clayton Critcher, said the difficulties arise because the individual concealing information must constantly monitor his or her speech to make sure the hidden information is not revealed.
"With no federal protection for gays and lesbians in the workplace, our work suggests that the wisdom of nondiscrimination laws should be debated not merely through a moral lens, but with an appreciation for the loss of economic productivity that such vulnerabilities produce," Critcher said.
As part of the study, researchers conducted interviews with participants, who were told to not reveal their sexual orientation while answering the questions.
Following the interview, the researchers measured whether the participants' intellectual, physical or interpersonal skills were degraded due to their concealment of their sexual orientation. In one experiment, participants completed a measure of spatial intelligence that was modeled after items on military aptitude tests. Participants randomly assigned to conceal their sexual orientation performed 17 percent worse than those who went through the interview without instructions to conceal information.
Additional studies revealed that concealment led people to show less interpersonal restraint: People who were told to conceal information had more trouble responding politely to a snarky email from a superior. During another test, participants demonstrated poorer performance on a Stroop task, a commonly used measure of executive cognitive function.
Critcher said the results show that organizations that explicitly or implicitly encourage people to conceal their sexual orientation may significantly harm workers.
"Establishing a workplace climate that supports diversity may be one of the easiest ways to enhance workplace productivity," Critcher said.
The study, which is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, was co-authored by Cornell assistant professor Melissa Ferguson.