Haas professor finds concealing aspects of identity can hurt productivity

Yi Zhong/Staff

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As debate raged about the future of the U.S. military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, Clayton Critcher, an assistant professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business, was struck by a central question about the policy he thought was never addressed.

He wanted to know how the policy — which required LGBT service members to keep their sexual orientation secret — affected the military’s productivity.

Critcher offers an answer to that question in a forthcoming study on the effects of keeping secrets in the workplace. The study, conducted by Critcher and Melissa Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell University, found that workers who conceal aspects of their identity are prone to decreased performance and productivity.

“When people were debating ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ from a policy perspective, it was always through a moral lense,” Critcher said. “But it’s also a question (of) if you’re harming the productivity of our workforce.”

In a series of experiments, Critcher and Ferguson placed participants in mock interviews in which some were told not to reveal their sexual orientation.

At Cornell, participants were asked to perform basic tasks such as taking a military spatial reasoning test. Participants who were told to conceal their sexual orientation performed 17 percent worse on the tests, according to Critcher.

In another trial, UC Berkeley undergraduates were asked to respond to a “somewhat obnoxious” email from a hypothetical GSI, Critcher said. Participants who were asked to conceal their sexual orientation were less likely to respond politely than their counterparts.

Critcher says monitoring — the effort it takes for people to censor themselves when concealing something — is what diminished participants’ ability to perform as well as their peers. And because the phenomenon occurs regardless of whether there is an immediate risk of revealing a secret, workplaces with policies similar to “don’t ask, don’t tell” can hurt worker productivity.

“People have limited willpower to exert self-control” Critcher said. “Our research is the first to figure out that it’s the constant monitoring to make sure you don’t slip up that’s so exhausting. There’s a benefit to being explicit in addressing diversity in the workplace.”

Billy Curtis, director of the UC Berkeley Gender Equity Resource Center, compared it to overloading a computer.

“You only have so much memory. When you open up YouTube and Facebook on your computer, and then you try to do a calculation, what happens to your computer? It’s slower,” Curtis said.

Wendy Moreno, president of the LGBT business group Out for Business at Berkeley, echoed the conclusions of the study.

“If you can’t come into a … workspace with the ability to be yourself, you’re limiting your happiness, your expression, your freedom, your personality. It will eventually begin to affect you,” she said.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected].