Google in Egypt: Can companies limit employee activism?
Nearly every time Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist released from prison February 7, is mentioned, so is his company. The Google executive, as Ghonim is known, is based in Dubai and is a marketing manager for the search-engine giant in the region. But he has also been one of a small group of people behind the Facebook campaign that helped to spark the massive protests calling for the president's ouster. And increasingly, he's being painted as a leader of the youth movement that has taken up residence in Cairo's Tahrir Square, especially after he gave an emotionally charged interview on Friday that helped to turn him into an international celebrity.
So what does Google think of all this? The company has been active in helping with the search for his whereabouts--while he was detained, it issued a statement with a phone number for the public to call if they had information about where he was. It expressed relief when he was released. And when asked whether or not he violated company policies, Google did not say, stating instead that it doesn't comment on employees' personal beliefs and activities.
Still, Ghonim has unwittingly pulled his employer's name into an uprising that resulted in the disruption of business and Internet access in Egypt. And his involvement landed him in prison for 12 days--a situation that, applied broadly, surely has corporate risk officers worried. All of this raises several interesting questions: Are companies in a position to ask employees not to get involved in certain political movements that could lead to unstable outcomes? And in a global business world, what should corporate leaders do to prepare for dealing with such employees?
Both questions are very difficult, and there may be no clear answer for either one. Ghonim does not appear to have identified himself with the company in his Facebook and Twitter posts, though after his release he did thank the company on Twitter for their efforts: "Thanks @Google for all the efforts you did in 'searching' for me. Today 'I'm feeling lucky' that I work for this company." The company has acknowledged that these are his personal activities and beliefs. And while the protests in Egypt may have disrupted business and communications in Egypt temporarily, a more democratic government in the future could lead to a better environment for business, particularly for Internet-driven companies like Google.
But there is at least one sign that the company is trying to distance itself from Ghonim's actions--or vice versa. On the day of his release, the activist tweeted, "My friends please don't create logos with my personal photos in general. Also specially if it has Google logo in it."
Still, corporate risk consultants are sounding warnings. Relationships with government officers are one concern: the local government is often the principal client, say risk experts, especially in emerging markets with authoritarian regimes. As a result, companies are likely to be rethinking their policies for expatriates. As a Kroll Associates consultant said, "If there was an individual working for a very prominent company who engaged conspicuously in political conduct, I will tell the company that they should caution their employees that their ... political activity in some climates carries risk."
That's an understatement in the case of Ghomin, who spent more than a week in detention. While he says he wasn't physically harmed, he could have been; and in addition to the business ramifications, the safety and security of employees is a big concern for companies. There may be no simple answers to how much employers can dictate the political activities of its executives during their personal time, especially if their actions do not cross established ethical standards or existing corporate policies. But the issue of balancing the rights of employees with the risky realities of doing business in a global market is sure to be a complex one for global corporate leaders for years to come.
February 9, 2011; 10:35 AM ET |
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