How to Handle Employee Activism: Google Tiptoes Around Cairo's Hero
by John Bussey
Wall Street Journal
As the world marveled this week at the remarkable story of Wael Ghonim, the Google manager who helped organize a popular rebellion in Egypt, a great sigh of relief could be heard rising from much of the rest of American business:
"I'm glad," came the exhale, "the guy doesn't work for us."
Who wasn't amazed at the power Mr. Ghonim wielded against the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak? An Internet geek and Google's Mideast regional marketing executive, Mr. Ghonim helped administer a group of Web pages that served as a rallying point for activists long before crowds gathered in Tahrir Square. He was detained by the police, made a martyr in the streets, and then released. A popular hero was born.
A lot of U.S. companies, which now manage millions of employees abroad, watched with trepidation. Many of them now earn more abroad than they do in America. And much of that income comes from the sale of big-ticket items—power systems, infrastructure equipment, aircraft, telecommunications—that only governments can afford to buy.
Companies may not want to be lapdogs to dictators. But they also don't want to tick off their chief customer. It's a balancing act, one that inevitably leads to a policy of corporate discretion: Best to stay off the radar screen.
Reflecting on Mr. Ghonim's extracurricular activities, an executive at one big U.S. manufacturer operating abroad was adamant: "Anything that affects the brand – we hate that," he said. "It wouldn't be allowed." Mr. Ghonim can be admired for his considerable contribution to civil liberties in Egypt, but also shunned as too great a liability to business.
Of course, that's exactly the sort of traditionalism the Google culture, and much of Silicon Valley, rebels against. Google, after all, is the company whose corporate motto is "Don't be evil" and whose co-founder, Sergey Brin, pulled operations from China because the country was censoring Google searches.
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