Weekly Wrap: What Happens When Your Employee Helps Lead a Rebellion?

Longtime managers probably know this all too well: sometimes, employees do the darnedest things.

Yes, if you have spent much time managing people you probably know that you can’t possibly anticipate the various things that your workers can get involved in – you know them as “management challenges” – that not only complicate your life but also leave your head spinning from the managerial gymnastics you have to do.

So it is with Google this week, as the company deals with the fact that its regional Mideast marketing executive, Wael Ghonim, has his hands full, as The Wall Street Journal puts it , helping to “organize a popular rebellion in Egypt.”

And you thought your HR issues were driving you crazy.

The Journal’s story on this remarkable turn of events gets right to the heart of the matter, at least for most American managers:

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.”

Yes, this is not your run-of-the-mill, “we need HR to get involved” type of issue that you probably are familiar with. And, it creates some special issues for Google:

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.”

But as the newspaper also points out, Google is not your typical American company. The Google work culture, The Journal notes, rebels against the traditionalism that most U.S. companies embrace. They believe that “a vibrant, break-the-rules culture can spur innovation—and be a big draw for smart, young talent eager to make things happen.”

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Wael Ghonim is a regional Mideast marketing executive for Google.
Wael Ghonim is a regional Mideast marketing executive for Google.

Still, Google the employer doesn’t really want to talk about what Google employee Ghonim is doing in Egypt, except that he is “on leave during his activism in Egypt and is acting on his own, not as an agent of the company.” Google also believes, the newspaper says, that “the public is making far too much of (Ghonim’s) connection to Google.”

Well, Google may be a smart and savvy company, but that is probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard attributed to them. How else do you expect people to view what Google employee Ghonim is doing, particularly here in America? Leave of absence or no, an employee of a prominent U.S. company in the Middle East who takes an active and prominent role in mass demonstrations designed to overthrow a government is going to get closely identified with that company.

This is an HR issue for the ages, and it makes me wonder; how would you deal with YOUR employee is they were involved in something like this. Inquiring minds want to know.

Of course, there’s a lot more in the news this week this week than Google executives working to overthrow the government of Egypt (although I admit that is pretty hard to top), and here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed while trying to track the issues in the Middle East. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Behind those Best Places to Work lists. I look at the annual Best Places to Work list in Fortune as closely as anyone, but one website makes a pretty compelling case that those lists may not be as definitive and solid as a lot of people think they are. The blog 24/7WallSt says the list, which is compiled by the Best Places to Work Institute, is “worthless.” You should read the post yourself to see if you agree, but taken as a whole, it is a tough look at how these kind of “best places” lists are done – and how much they really measure.
  • Public workers get cranky as pressure to cut jobs grows. Public workers are starting to feel the job loss pressure that so many in the private sector got hit with beginning in 2009. The Washington Post reports that the largest union of federal workers – the American Federation of Government Employees – is launching “a $1 million-plus campaign across the country to fight looming cuts to the workforce.” Meanwhile over at the Transportation Security Administration, big boss John Pistole told Congress this week “that he would fire any workers who strike or purposely slow their work over disagreements with the agency’s labor policies, noting that neither option is legally allowed anyway,” according to another story in the Post. And out in Ohio, new Gov. John Kasich is also threatening public employees who go on strike, telling the Columbus Dispatch that “We would outlaw strikes, and the penalties would either be firing or docked wages.” Asked what recourse public union workers would have under his proposal, Kasich said, “They have a job. They should continue to negotiate and try to come up with something.
  • San Francisco sick-leave law is working. The Los Angeles Times’ Money & Company blog reports that San Francisco’s mandatory (and controversial) sick-leave law, “has gained wide acceptance among employees and their bosses, a new study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says.” Surveys of 700 employers and 1,200 employees “by the Washington institute found that two-thirds of employers support the San Francisco law, and only 1 in 7 employers complained that it affected their profitability.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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