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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.

By Jena McGregor

 |  February 9, 2011; 10:35 AM ET |  Category:  Corporate leadership , Foreign Affairs , Technology Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Are companies in a position to ask employees not to get involved in certain political movements that could lead to unstable outcomes?"

Huh. Look what corporations can do in the US thanks to the right wing majority on the Supreme Court.

Posted by: timothy2me | February 10, 2011 9:13 AM

Hmm. That's odd. Because there are literally thousands of American executives attending fundraisers and political rallies, much of the time for the Republican party, but also for the Democrats. It happens continuously in this country. Yet this article wasn't about any of them. Why not refer to a politically active white American executive?

Or why not criticize the dozens of American politicians who tout their experience as an executive with X or Y corporation as a selling point? Maybe they are "former" employees but they are using the corporation's identity to market themselves.

So what is really the "branding" issue here. Let me suggest: Wael Ghoneim is not just a "politically active" executive. He is a politically active ARAB executive in a foreign country that does billions of dollars of business with American companies every year, the benefits from which have trickled down not one iota to the average person. If Wael Ghoneim was a white American guy, this article would NEVER have been written.

By the way, cheers Wael. You are an inspiration to everybody on the planet. I'm glad you are safe.

Posted by: ummlulu | February 10, 2011 5:20 AM

Wael Ghonim, the man who risks his ars to same ours. My full support and admiration to this hero. Thank you Google also.

Posted by: eaglehawkaroundsince1937 | February 10, 2011 4:29 AM

Have to see how Google plays this out.

If they are supporting an employee and a cause w/o direct involvement, bravo, I agree w/ them.

If things turn out well, and Google later plays on it, it will stink.

Unlike many others, I don't see Google as some force for good. It is just another multi-national corporation.

Google probably has more information on a lot of Egyptian citizens than the secret police.

Posted by: BEEPEE | February 10, 2011 12:39 AM

Google,thanks to this man,had a very very positive image.The Egyptian Revolution was not the cause of disruption of Media Services,it's the dictator's government who did that to supress Egyptian people without beeing seen by the world.Finally,Google gained hugely because,for example,Syrian dictator government,re-opened access to facebook and u-tube,fearing a similar revolt.Thanks

Posted by: cherifhakam | February 9, 2011 10:49 PM

Where does it end for Google? When someone lobby's for Hamas? Campaigns for anti immigrant politicians such as the Dutchman Geert Wilders?

Posted by: IamWright | February 9, 2011 8:58 PM

I give a lot of credit to Google for being consistent. When they moved off Mainland China for the more Capitalist-Friendly Hong Kong (Capitalist Narrative), or when they moved off Mainland China for the corrupt anarchists in Hong Kong (Chinese Narrative), they were making a decision about what their employees do on company time. This is exactly the opposite case, and apparently Google knows it.

In contrast, I worked for an electronics retail chain at the time of the first Gulf war. I knew one District Manager fired for wearing a ribbon in support of his brother, then on active duty in the Persian Gulf. The chain is still in business, but going on 20 years; I have not spent a dime there.

Posted by: gannon_dick | February 9, 2011 7:03 PM

Actually, the question is should companies try to limit employee activism, and, generally, I think that they should not. There are limited exceptions, as when the activism casts the company in a false light or a bad light, when the companies themselves are hurt by the activism, or when the activism interfers with the employees' job performance. Other than those exceptions, however, the employees' activism is not the companies' business.

Posted by: klakey1 | February 9, 2011 5:16 PM

how many jihadists are in control of the means to ship arms, wmd's and terrorists under some corporate cover...
how many rich arabs pull the strings of global corporations...

Posted by: DwightCollins | February 9, 2011 4:58 PM

Except when there is some direct connection between a person's job and some politically sensitive role, a worker's political and religious activities should be their own business. But those activities should be on their own time and clearly separate from their employer. Businesses should try to keep their efforts focused on activates that are associated with their business. That can include their views on potential government policies that have an impact on their business. It also can include some relatively generic public service. But it should avoid any company positions on particular political or religious ideologies. That kind of policy was certainly the reality at the very large multinational technology business that I used to work for. I suspect it is the common practice at least among the larger American companies.

Posted by: dnjake | February 9, 2011 4:51 PM

DKP01 has it exactly right, and I am appalled that the Post would publish a column suggesting that it is a difficult question whether an employer has the right to control an employee's political activity on his own time and where no apparent effort was made either to trade on the employer's name or use the employer's facilities.

Posted by: Meridian1 | February 9, 2011 4:50 PM

Here's a question: Who cares what corporate leaders think?
Here's the answer: Other corporate leaders and their paid-for mouthpieces.

Posted by: icurhuman2 | February 9, 2011 3:43 PM

Wael Ghonim should probably be fired for missing work and his personal views could not possibly reflect the entireity of a company like Google. If the protestors win and things get worse how will they make them look? They should not get involved in geopolitical matters such as this, it is a risk to their public image.

Posted by: ozpunk | February 9, 2011 3:18 PM

I think Google has gained a whole lot of positive image from this, more than any I can remember. If this revolution goes well, Google will have a good case for being the company of freedom.
If I was Google I would brag about Mr Ghonim, and the company has already provided a way for the protesters to get around Government efforts to stop protesters from informing the world so I assume they agree in general with this position. Google will never be able to work well in a society without information freedom, so they should support freedom in a big way.

BTW the Obama Administration has supported the protesters basic goals in a big way at major risk to the USA. As is often pointed out, there are few Democracies and the USA has a major oil habit. To ignore the risk the USA has put itself in by supporting a transition, Mubarack get out and hold real elections, is childish. The USA is taking a course sure to scare most of the leadership of the Middle East. If President Obama went any further, he would be deciding on Egyptian leadership for Egypt. Note Real Democracy is never given to a country by a foreign power, the people of a country ALWAYS have to take power for themselves, taking all the risks and shedding all the blood that is required for Democracy to have a chance.

Go Demonstrators, do not stop short of anything short of true and complete freedom for all!

Posted by: Muddy_Buddy_2000 | February 9, 2011 3:03 PM

The difficulty is, or maybe a difficulty is, is when you're the face of an organization, be it Google or the United States, or Coke or Pepsi, in a country, you represent the company or organization whether it's your personal belief or personal time or not. At a certain point, you have an obligation to distance yourself from your organization, even if it means quitting the company.

Not everyone agrees with the "revolution" in Egypt, any more than they believe in the U.S. helping bring freedom and democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan; and for Google to continually be identified with the Egyptian "revolution, does that mean those not agreeing with the "revolution" should be boycotting Google, and not providing it with their business?

For the sake of the company, either Mr. Ghonim should leave the company, or the company announce that he doesn't represent the company and put him on administrative absence (paid or otherwise). What he does on his time is, of course, his choosing; but he still is the face of the company in that country.

Posted by: Dungarees | February 9, 2011 12:29 PM

These are not difficult questions. No, they can't really limit employee speech, and no, they shouldn't. Ghonim's actions were done on his own time; he had leave saved up and went to Egypt. He did not go as an ambassador of Google, he went as a private citizen. And the idea that companies should try to limit the political speech of employees not on company time is a pretty heinous one. Individuals have the basic human right to freedom of expression, and because it is necessary to work for money, and because the demand for labor is generally lower than the supply of labor, it's problematic to say that someone's employer has a right to curtail their right to expression. You don't have a right to a job, but at the same time you can't just quit your job to gain back your full expression rights, and you can't necessarily switch to a different company with great ease.

Sure, if Ghonim were trying to say that Google believes one thing or another, or if he were using official Google channels to organize the protest, that might be a problem. But the guy was technically on "vacation" time, at least for half his time in jail. What he does or says is none of Google's business, and I commend them for a) looking for their employee and b) not denouncing his actions.

Firms need to learn how to deal with the economic or business ramifications of free speech WITHOUT curtailing or dictating what employees can do when they're not even on the clock. It seem's Google has done it, so I see no reason for lesser firms to have any problem finding that same balance.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 9, 2011 12:18 PM

I can only think that his actions are supported by Google, though naturally they cannot come out and say "we support the revolution" because, for one Obama does not.
This really seems to be a non-issue. If he had been involved in something untoward, his company would've taken appropriate actions. Instead he is supporting a peaceful protest to end tyranny. Who wouldn't support that? This is the question I would like to ask Obama and the EU, by the way.

Posted by: hebe1 | February 9, 2011 11:48 AM

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