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Study: Liberal-leaning CEOs' Firms More Likely to Exit Russia

A group of seven people meeting in a board room for a business meeting.

U.S. companies led by liberal-leaning CEOs were more likely to exit Russia than firms with conservative-leaning CEOs, according to new research from Florida Atlantic University and Northeastern University.

Since the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict in February 2022, hundreds of multinationals worldwide have pulled out of Russia in protest. When it comes to U.S. companies, those led by CEOs with a liberal penchant were more likely to exit the country than firms with conservative-leaning leaders, according to new research from Florida Atlantic University and Northeastern University.

Yannick Thams, Ph.D., an associate professor in FAU’s College of Business, and Northeastern University's Luis Dau, Ph.D., both reached their conclusion after analyzing 189 U.S. companies, measuring political ideology using long-term patterns of publicly available donations to the Republican and Democratic parties.

The researchers looked only at the first 40 days of the conflict, building a database from Yale University's Chief Executive Leadership Institute list of worldwide companies that have left Russia. Their study was published in the Journal of World Business.

Among the left-leaning companies analyzed, Uber and Airbnb exited Russia entirely while Nike suspended operations. Meanwhile, Hilton, Proctor & Gamble and the Hunstman Corp. were examples of enterprises headed by conservative-leaning executives that continued operations.

“We live in a polarized country from a political standpoint,” Thams said. “Many people believe firms should not mix business and politics. On the other hand, some customers, especially the younger ones, are starting to evaluate firms based on their political leanings.”

Increasing polarization has made ideology more prominent in the United States, prompting publicly traded firms to take ideological positions on societal issues. One of the most publicized is Walt Disney Co.’s stance against Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill, a move that drew the ire of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and led to a legal battle between the governor and Florida’s largest employer.

CEOs are appointed by boards of directors of public firms to deliver financial results, and the boards expect CEOs to make decisions based on tangible factors, Thams noted.

“Decisions based on ideology may not be rational, and this may hinder the ability of CEOs to expand shareholder value,” she said. “It makes some people wonder whether maximizing shareholder wealth is something of the past.”

Thams and Dau believe more firms may start to re-evaluate entering foreign markets based on ideological considerations. If so, that would contradict Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, who once insisted that the only social responsibility of businesses is to operate in a way that maximizes profits.

“In this era in which the phrase ‘no politics at work’ seems to be outdated, we hope that this study sparks further interest into this arena,” the researchers noted in the study.