Is it evil to fire a revolting employee?

What do you do when one of your marketing guys decides to take a few weeks off and help overthrow a medium-sized government?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Here's an interesting management dilemma. One of your marketing guys decides to take a few weeks off and help overthrow a medium-sized government.

What do you do? What do you do?

I am, of course, talking about Wael Ghonim, Google's head of marketing in the Middle East, which just happens to include Egypt.

CBS News: Wael Ghonim: A "One-Off" for Silicon Valley?

BTL: Wael Ghonim: I'll go back to Google if I'm not fired

For the purposes of this article, I'm not taking sides. I want us to look at this event as we would in a college civics class, from an academic perspective.

Let's break out the issues. First, we have an employee of company whose job it is to, among other things, sell to the Egyptian government. He takes a few weeks off, and helps overthrow said government. In essence, he just shut down what may have been a very big customer.

The customer, of course, is the Mubarak regime. America doesn't call Mubarak a dictator, but he's not exactly Mr. Due Process either. What do you do when your customer doesn't subscribe to a "do no evil" policy?

And what should an employer, an employer that has a particularly famous "do no evil" policy, do? Should it fire the employee just because the employee helped foment revolt? It was, after all, on his personal time.

As for the employee, how do you follow that up? Do you just go on, writing brochures to sell search appliances to whomever the new regime happens to be? Or do you run for office? Do wait until your next two week vacation and pick another country to overthrow?

Many revolutionaries weren't always revolutionaries before the revolution. Patrick Henry was a failed planter and a lawyer. Paul Revere was a silversmith. George Washington was a farmer. Ben Franklin was a printer (and, by all accounts, had serious chops when it came to having a good time).

The whole point of revolution (as compared to, say, transition) is that revolution is tumultuous change. It's change where people take leave of their normal activities to revolt. Revolution isn't something you normally wait to do until you have enough vacation days saved up.

Ghonim is a Cairo-born marketing dude. On normal days, he's probably like all marketing dudes, all over the planet. Too many emails, too many to-do items.

But something changed. Like so many other Egyptian citizens, Ghonim had had enough. He took action and -- possibly because of his day job -- became a cause célèbre for the protestors.

Therein lies the problem for Google.

Google, as a matter of corporate policy, did not choose to protest against the Mubarak regime. Google does what Google normally does, which is search Web pages, sell ads, and code.

But now, one of their employees is famous. He's not famous for doing something that everyone can agree is special. He didn't win a Pulitzer, he didn't win a gold medal at the Olympics. He helped overthrow a government.

Google could terminate Ghonim from their employ. That would undoubtedly result in bad PR for Google outside most government/policy circles.

On the other hand, Google could celebrate Ghonim. That would make Google's other government customers nervous. If they're entrusting Google with their information through, for example, Google's government cloud computing initiatives, those governments probably wouldn't be happy if Google employees spent their 20% time plotting to overthrow them.

So far, Google seems to be stepping very gingerly on this one. Publicly, the company stated they were concerned while Ghonim was held captive, but now that he's been released, the official statement has been "no comment."

Today, however, Google's officially-verified Twitter account stated that the company was "incredibly proud" of Ghonim. It was signed "cf". I could be drawing a blank that comes from not having coffee in the last 20 minutes, but I haven't figured out who -- in the list of people with access to the Twitter account -- "cf" is, and whether that statement was indicative of Google corporate policy or just one enthusiastic fan.

Again, the situation becomes sketchy for Google. If the Twitterer that used Google's account spoke for Google in a corporate spokesperson role, that's one thing. If the person who wrote the tweet merely expressed personal opinion, then the comment is being attributed worldwide to Google.

Let's end this with some food for thought.

Is this a one-off incident in corporate governance and political activism or do companies need to add "regime change" to their list of employee policies dos and don'ts?

Should Google throw its support wholeheartedly behind Ghonim's actions or should it be more reserved?

Should Ghonim get his job back and should he be trusted to call on the new Egyptian regime?

Outside of developing something like Google News, Gmail, or AdSense, if you had 20% time (the time Google famously reserves for engineers to innovate on their own projects) to do something revolutionary, what would you do?

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