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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Hurts Workplace Performance

Is your co-worker gay — or are you unsure? The answer could impact your job performance.
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Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t do your job as well.

That’s the implication of newly published research, which links poorer job performance with uncertainty about a colleague’s sexual orientation.

“Supporters of policies that force gay and lesbian individuals to conceal their sexual orientation in the workplace argue that working with openly gay individuals undermines performance,” writes a trio of researchers led by UCLA’s Benjamin Everly. “We examine this claim in two studies and find the opposite effect.”

These findings, published the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are certainly timely. The military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule, in which gay soldiers are discharged if they reveal their sexual orientation, will be repealed Sept. 20. Last week, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said she was in favor of reinstating that policy — which would be within her authority as president.

Social conservatives argue that serving with openly gay soldiers could harm troops' “unity and effectiveness.” While unity is hard to quantify, effectiveness is not, and this study suggests allowing openly gay soldiers could actually enhance it.

The first experiment featured 27 male UCLA undergraduates who were placed in a room with cubicles and told they would work with a partner on a task. To begin, they filled out an information sheet about themselves, and then read a similar sheet purportedly prepared by their partner.

Half the participants learned their partner “was an interior design major from San Francisco who enjoyed cooking and dancing.” The other half got that same information but were also told he had a boyfriend named Josh.

The participant was then introduced to his either gay or sexually ambiguous partner. Immediately afterwards, they sat down at a table together and completed a math test.

The researchers found that, after controlling for their SAT math scores, “participants paired with an openly gay partner correctly answered significantly more questions on the math test than participants paired with an ambiguously gay partner.”

The second study, which featured 26 male undergrads, was identical to the first, except the task involved working together rather than separately. Specifically, the participants and their partners played a Wii game that involved shooting series of small targets — balloons and ducks — on a computer screen. While the men’s scores were tallied individually, the game involved “a high degree of interaction,” the researchers note.

Once again, participants with an openly gay partner scored significantly higher than those with a sexually ambiguous partner (after controlling for the participants’ Wii experience).

“These results suggest not knowing the identity of one’s interaction partner may be more harmful to performance than knowing the identity — even a stigmatized identity — of one’s interaction partner,” the researchers conclude.

Everly and his colleagues offer several possible explanations for this. They note that an employee who is unsure of a co-worker’s sexual orientation “may devote additional cognitive resources to determine the identity of their partner,” diminishing their job-performance skills.

In other words, the ambiguity creates a mental distraction; removing it allows you to focus on the task at hand.

This is a small study, and the researchers note that their participant pool of university students had a “relatively low level” of anti-gay prejudice. It's possible that a homophobic work force -- or fighting force -- could produce different results (although there's no evidence pointing in that direction).

Nevertheless, the study suggests teammates do better work in an atmosphere of openness. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” appears to adversely impact not only closeted gay members of the military, but also the straight soldiers who work alongside them.

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