Political misfits in the workplace: What happens in red and blue organizational cultures? - Activate World

Political misfits in the workplace: What happens in red and blue organizational cultures?

political misfits

Sekou Bermiss, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Sekou Bermiss is an Assistant Professor of Management at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. He received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute(NY), and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Management and Organizations from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Dr. Bermiss conducts research in the area of strategic human capital management where he explores the micro-foundations of competitive advantage by studying the antecedents and consequences of manager mobility and how different forms of employee movement impact a firm’s ability to compete with rivals. His award-winning research has been published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Strategic Management Journal, and Research in Organizational Behavior. His research has also been highlighted by Harvard Business Review and National Public Radio. Before entering academia, Dr. Bermiss worked as a management consultant for Deloitte& Touche in New York City.

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Political Misfits in the Workplace: 
What Happens in Red and Blue Organizational Cultures?

Do you discuss politics at work? How do you feel if political issues are discussed in the workplace? With limited research on how an organization’s focus on political ideology impacts employees, Dr. Sekou Bermiss, along with Dr. Rory McDonald, Associate Professor Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, explored what happens when an employee’s political ideology differs from the firm where they’re employed. What happens to conservatives in a liberal workplace, and what happens to liberals in a conservative workplace? A new organizational culture element to consider.

Join the conversation with Dr. Sekou Bermiss as we explore his findings in “Ideological Misfit? Political Affiliation and Employee Departure in the Private-Equity Industry” and discuss the insights gained.


Political Misfits in the Workplace: What Happens in Red and Blue Organizational Cultures?

Sekou Bermiss, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Season 3, Episode 5

Jon Mertz:          00:02          Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.

Jon Mertz:          00:18          Today, we are joined by Sekou Bermiss, who is a professor at the University of Texas and was recently named one of the top 50 undergraduate professors by Poets & Quants. Welcome to Active World, Professor Bermiss.

Sekou Bermiss:      00:30          Thanks for having me, Jon, appreciate it.

Jon Mertz:          00:32          So, before we dive in, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to teach at the University of Texas.

Sekou Bermiss:      00:37          Sure. In a previous life I was an engineer, a chemical engineer, and so I worked with systems and I loved math and science. But I was interested in interacting with people more than engineering professions normally provided, and so I went to the dark side, I went to consulting, management consulting, did that for a little while, and fell in love with the organizations and understanding the problems and issues that they have.

Sekou Bermiss:      01:08          That pointed me to wards academia, where I could do that full-time, and the rest is history. I got my PhD at Northwestern university, at the Kellogg School of Management, and have been, after graduation, been here at the University of Texas.

Jon Mertz:          01:24          The name of the paper you wrote is “Ideological Misfit? Political Affiliation and Employee Departure in the Private-Equity Industry.” What prompted your interest in this subject?

Sekou Bermiss:      01:33          I have for a while been interested in human capital in general, mobility, traction, retention within organizations, and that all comes from just my personal experience within the consulting field, where it’s made up of a collection of individuals and knowledge that they had, but was immensely valuable. And I was interested in how and why, to the extent that companies could understand this.

Sekou Bermiss:      02:02          And so I had this general interest in human capital mobility, and my co-author Rory McDonald, who was at the time here at the University of Texas, had some interest in studying and understanding private equity industries, studies entrepreneurship and innovation primarily. So we kind of found this data that we knew we could utilize, the data being the political donations data. And we were able to figure out a way to ask questions that we were both interested in, me looking at mobility, but then also this interest in ideology as a measure of the values that individuals have. When we started this, this was something that wasn’t well understood within organizations.

Jon Mertz:          02:53          Right in the opening of your research paper you gave the example of a senior employee at Renaissance Technologies. What was unique about that example?

Sekou Bermiss:      03:02          It was in part because, as we were writing this, this is one of the interesting parts of working on this paper, is these things started to come out, spill out onto the newspapers, as we were working on them. So we didn’t have these examples when we first started writing the paper.

Sekou Bermiss:      03:19          But the Renaissance Technologies one was really interesting to us because, again, it was somewhat related to the context, a quantitative hedge fund, and the fact that you had an employee, a very senior employee, who was very critical to the success of that firm, speaking out against his boss in regards to the support that his boss was giving to president Trump.

Sekou Bermiss:      03:47          And the fact that he was suspended and fired, there was some argumentation around whether it was a wrongful termination or not. It, to us, was a very clear example of how maybe this is quote-unquote irrational, maybe … This is obviously a situation where the employer probably wanted to be there, Renaissance Technologies was really reliant on them for help with developing algorithms for investments.

Sekou Bermiss:      04:13          But their disagreement about the way the world should or should not be structured seemed to be an important factor in whether or not they continued a relationship, an employee-employer relationship. So that, we felt, was a really good exemplar of the constructs that we were trying to get at with this paper. And obviously we looked at it in a large scale, big data set, but there were these really shining examples that we thought really exemplified what we thought was going on here.

Jon Mertz:          04:45          You also talk about the person-organization fit. What’s the theory behind that?

Sekou Bermiss:      04:49          The general theory is that people will be attracted to organizations that exude the same values that they personally have, and more so that, when there is a high level of fit, that individuals will identify with the company, they’ll work harder, they will stay longer. A lot of positive outcomes will occur when an individual is properly aligned with the organization that they are working for.

Jon Mertz:          05:21          So in your research you focus on the misfit that can happen when politics come into the workplace.

Sekou Bermiss:      05:26          Yeah, and the interesting part, at least for us, is that the salience of political ideology ebbs and flows. I think now people are acutely aware of the politics of different organizations, but this wasn’t always the case, that you at least would think about, “What are the politics of the people who work in this bank, who work at this consulting firm when I join?”

Sekou Bermiss:      05:52          But to the extent that now these are salient characteristics that people are starting to pay attention to, yes, our undergirding hypothesis was, “Fit will be good, and misfit will be bad.”

Jon Mertz:          06:08          Can you talk a little bit about how that political ideology could play within an organization?

Sekou Bermiss:      06:14          There are a couple of different ways. One is, if you think about the policies that an organization will adopt, there’s been some recent research looking at either corporate-social responsibility, the extent to which certain affinity groups will give the support of the organization to be founded within the organization have been tied to CEO political ideology.

Sekou Bermiss:      06:41          To the extent that you have a CEO that is more liberal, for example, studies have shown you’ll see that those companies will tend to have corporate-social policies that are aligned with this view of liberalism, such that inequality or attempting to address general inequalities within society is something that the corporation should resolve itself to do.

Sekou Bermiss:      07:11          So you see within a lot of these policies, other areas that have been looked at are pay gaps, gender pay gaps, that’s another example of an inequality, and tying that to CEO activism. And then even things that are more outward-facing, such as tax strategies, or thinking about the way that political ideology is connected to the types of strategies that organizations will engage in due to the ideology of the CEO and the top management team.

Jon Mertz:          07:46          Can you give us an idea of how you conducted the research?

Sekou Bermiss:      07:49          It starts with the data, being able to … I knew in general we knew we wanted to look at ideology and how it impacted departure. Ideology, right now, the best way to study that is to look at these donations, look at donations of individuals, and develop these indexes.

Sekou Bermiss:      08:12          So we needed a group that was … We could tie that in, that’s tied into the FEC data, and so linking the FEC data with the names of the individuals at each of these private equity firms, that’s the first step, getting that data together. And then it was just a process of coding the data, modeling it so that we could look at departures and how they happened and whatnot.

Sekou Bermiss:      08:39          Our hypotheses, again, were pretty clear at the beginning. We thought, “Let’s just test to see the extent that fit drives turnover,” and we were really keen on understanding to the extent that conservative misfit versus liberal misfit might lead to some different effect sizes.

Jon Mertz:          08:59          So highlight the results of that research for us.

Sekou Bermiss:      09:02          What we found was, in fact, that to be the case. The first was all misfit does not lead to increased turnover likelihood, in particular the biggest surprise for us was that in some cases more misfit actually leads to lower likelihood of departure, and that was on the liberal misfit side.

Sekou Bermiss:      09:25          We found that liberals who were operating in more conservative dominated organizations actually showed less likelihood of departure than those that were in more moderate groups. The opposite actually on the conservative side, we saw the more conservative misfit … The more that there was a distance between an individual’s ideology and the firm’s dominant ideology on the conservative side, the more likely they were to leave, and exit the firm.

Jon Mertz:          09:58          And any insight as to why that difference between those two political spectrums?

Sekou Bermiss:      10:02          We ran a number of interviews with people who were actually working in the private equity industry at the time, and what seemed to emerge was a difference in the way liberals and conservatives thought about what it was to be a misfit, what it was to be the lone, or the token, blank at the organization.

Sekou Bermiss:      10:29          Liberals, we found some evidence that they saw it as a challenge, they saw it as an opportunity, or as they were the last bastions of hope in the organizations, like, “If we leave, then no one’ll be here representing these ideals,” and so that seemed to drive a bit of their resolve to stay, and we just did not see a similar sentiment on the conservative side, from those that we spoke to.

Jon Mertz:          10:58          Anything else regarding how those different ideological approaches show up in the workplace?

Sekou Bermiss:      11:03          Some of this is a bit of conjecture, but based on the reading on political psychology, one of the things we hint on is this in-group versus out-group, the way conservatives versus liberals seem to think about in-groups versus out-groups, and conservatives tend to draw stronger distinction. And some of the political research says that there’s oftentimes a stronger negative connotation to those who are not in the in-group, along those lines.

Sekou Bermiss:      11:36          So that would align with this finding, that maybe the way that folks with conservative ideology think about those that do not share their ideology might be a little bit more negative. And so that was … We tried to tie that into some of what has been written about these tempered radicals, thinking about evangelism. That political ideology, unlike a lot of other aspects of characteristics of the workplace, it’s something that people think they can change.

Sekou Bermiss:      12:10          Imagine, for example, that you are someone that’s an extrovert, and you’re surrounded by a company where it’s dominate by introverts. You’re probably not going to think, “Well I can convert all of these folks to the other side.” But with political ideology, there is a sense that perhaps, “I stay here and I make some arguments, I send emails, have conversations, I can actually get people to see the other side.”

Sekou Bermiss:      12:41          And so that is kind of a unique aspect of the way ideology, as opposed to some of these other characteristics that have normally been looked at with PO fit research, might be different.

Jon Mertz:          12:53          As we look at how our hiring practices are building organizational culture, are we at a point in time where there’s a danger of becoming red and blue companies?

Sekou Bermiss:      13:01          I would say so. I think so, I think the evidence also that we collected shows that when there is misfit departures … And we tracked those folks and saw, “What firms did they join afterwards?” They joined firms that were more closely aligned with their ideology. This idea of sorting, there’s bits of evidence that sorting is happening geographically, and sorting is happening in a lot of other contexts. I think there is some evidence that it’s happening within the workplace.

Sekou Bermiss:      13:38          The one caveat to that is people really need jobs. So it seems to be something that is an inconvenience, but I don’t think it’s enough to get people to say, “Well, I won’t take a good job because there are liberals there, or because there are conservatives there.” So, unlike schooling and residencies, where you have a lot of options about where you can potentially live, particularly with these highly sought-after jobs like private equity, I think you still see a good deal of mixing.

Sekou Bermiss:      14:14          But it’s something to at least be aware of, because there’s a chance that, in the long run, if these trends work, you could get this separation and this sorting that I don’t think is healthy.

Jon Mertz:          14:28          Right, it seems like not having a diversity of political ideology or values within an organizational culture could not be a good thing.

Sekou Bermiss:      14:36          Yeah, absolutely. And I should also mention that, for the most part, companies are pretty evenly split. Even when we looked within our data on giving, it was right around 50/50, I think it was 51/49. So the strategic piece of supporting different parties, that shouldn’t be understated.

Jon Mertz:          15:05          In your research you mentioned how political misfits may not speak up within those organizations. Today, we see a rise of employee activism. There have been a number of petitions to executives within the Salesforce, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, and more recently we had the Google walkout around their harassment policies and how they protected some executives. If you look at employee activism, how do you think this fits into the future of politics in the workplace?

Sekou Bermiss:      15:30          I think CEO’s have started to go out there and voice their values, and now employees are starting to do the same. Maybe it’s in reaction to, I’m not sure. But I think there’s going to be more of these discussions. If you are managing a set of employees, and the CEO of that organization goes on a talk show and says certain things, I think you better be prepared to have that discussion about, “What did that mean for the values of the organization? If I don’t share those values, how can I continue to work here?” Those are going to be conversations I think we’ll see much more of happening, and probably hearing more of in the media.

Jon Mertz:          16:11          What’s your best advice for CEO’s or other business leaders in this new world of blurred lines between business and politics?

Sekou Bermiss:      16:19          I think maybe my advice would be twofold. One is to think about how your voicing of a political ideology, how people might disagree with you. I think a lot of people feel, and I think we’re guilty of this particularly in academia, where there’s just this belief that everyone’s a liberal here. And that’s not the case.

Sekou Bermiss:      16:45          But secondarily, allow for disagreement, setting up your organization so that, if people disagree, they’re not ridiculed, they don’t feel like they’re being chastised, they don’t feel like they’re being James Damore, where they have no outlet, and so they have to write a manifesto and post it to social media.

Sekou Bermiss:      17:08          So I think there’s opportunities, and CEO’s that recognize this and recognize that, “I have a voice, I have an opinion, but I also value and cherish those that don’t have that opinion, and we can hash it out.” So reasonable discourse, things that we used to have about politics. And so that to me I think is probably the biggest bit of advice.

Sekou Bermiss:      17:33          There’s a lot of demonizing rhetoric that I think gets thrown around, and I think that’s where it starts to get dangerous. It’s one thing to say I believe one thing, but it’s really troubling when you start to say, “Anyone who doesn’t believe this, X, Y, and Z.”

Jon Mertz:          17:51          As far as your experience in the classroom, what do you see as motivating these future business leaders in this world of politics in business?

Sekou Bermiss:      17:58          In some ways it’s new, but in a lot of ways I think it’s the same as it’s always been. Just the discussions are happening in different places. And so I think having arguments about politics, or the state of affairs in the world, have always happened. It’s just now there’s much more of a public performative aspect to it, and so … And this is social media probably influenced, where people are trying to make stands and they’re using grandiose terms and they’re painting with broad brushes, those kind of things.

Sekou Bermiss:      18:36          But I find in the classroom, whenever items like this come up, you can imagine I always interject them whenever I can, I try to point to the similarities, the fact that there’s more similarities than differences, and that with critical discourse and reasoning you can get down to the root differences between any kind of argument, and do so in a civil way.

Sekou Bermiss:      19:02          So I think that’s still there. The problem is, there’s a lot more of the performative aspect that our students are getting exposed to, so they see people giving speeches, they see people organizing protests, and very few reasoned, quiet conversations where people disagree. To the extent that we can motivate that, and I try to do that in my classroom, but universities hopefully will become a place where more of that can happen, I think will be helpful.

Jon Mertz:          19:35          Yeah, absolutely. Well, Professor Bermiss, thank you so much, not only for your research, but for your time today. It’s fascinating work that you’ve done, and I really look forward to where you take it next.

Sekou Bermiss:      19:45          Yeah, me too, me too.

Jon Mertz:          19:47          Thanks.

Jon Mertz:          19:53          Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.

  • Do you feel like a political misfit at your place of employment?
  • How do you navigate that tension?

Send your perspective to me at jon @ activateworld.com, that’s Jon without an H, J-O-N@activateworld.com. Write it out or record it, send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.       

Jon Mertz:          20:14          Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotifyiHeartRadioRadioPublic, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.

Jon Mertz:          20:31          Active World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.