Alibaba has fired a male employee accused of raping a female colleague amid public uproar over the incident and pleas from staff to address what many see as a misogynist workplace culture at the tech giant.
In an 11-page account of the incident that she posted to an internal Alibaba message board late Saturday, the woman – who did not reveal her identity – said she was raped by her supervisor on the night of July 27, after being pressured to drink heavily during a dinner with clients in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan.
She said she reported her boss to the police the next day, but he was not arrested. She then raised the matter with human-resources representatives at Alibaba, but that also went nowhere.
After a week of pushing the company to take action, she decided to go public, staging a protest in the staff canteen at Alibaba’s Hangzhou headquarters and sharing her account of the incident and the company’s response on the message board.
Posted late Saturday, screenshots of the account went viral, sparking widespread outrage. According to an open letter purporting to be from Alibaba employees, more than 6,000 joined an internal discussion group dedicated to the scandal to demand the company take action.
“This is the darkest hour for Alibaba,” the open letter said. “Justice has been ignored and tramped upon.”
Facing a public scandal at a time when regulatory scrutiny of Chinese tech firms is at an all-time high, Alibaba moved quickly to contain the fallout Monday.
In a public memo to staff, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. chairman Daniel Zhang said, “this weekend will remain in our memories forever,” adding that behind the “outpouring of emotions on our intranet” was “not just sympathy and care for the traumatized colleague but also tremendous sadness for the challenges in Alibaba’s culture.”
Mr. Zhang said the alleged perpetrator had admitted to “intimate acts with [the victim] while she was inebriated” and “will be fired and never be rehired.” In addition, executives Li Yonghe and Xu Kun had resigned, Mr. Zhang said.
“When the employee reported a horrendous act such as rape, they did not make timely decisions nor took appropriate action,” he wrote, adding that the company’s head of human resources, Judy Tong, would also be given an official demerit. “In the entire incident handling process, the HR function did not pay enough attention and care to our people. They were rational but lacked empathy and care.”
Mr. Zhang said the company would co-operate fully with the continuing police investigation. In an e-mail, a spokesperson added, “ensuring a safe workplace for all our employees is Alibaba’s top priority.”
The quick response to the scandal once it became public is reflective of the delicate position many tech firms find themselves in with Chinese regulators, which has left them “walking on eggshells,” said Kendra Schaefer, head of tech policy research at Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China.
“The current regulatory environment has likely made Alibaba’s management particularly sensitive to any issue which would make them appear to be shirking their obligations to be a good corporate citizen,” she said.
In the past year, Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on the country’s booming – and previously largely freewheeling – tech sector. Firms have been hit with record antitrust fines, forced to call off stock offerings, castigated in state media and subjected to probes into cybersecurity and data protection.
Since July alone, the Financial Times reported Monday, the sector’s richest tycoons have seen US$87-billion wiped off their collective wealth.
In an editorial Sunday, the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, said Alibaba “needs to accept both legal and moral supervision at the same time, and begin a more stable and powerful new start to jointly develop with the society.”
By all accounts, there is much to be done at the company. While it has touted its championing of female workers and boasted about the relatively large number of women in management, both employees and Mr. Zhang have acknowledged an internal culture that enables misogyny and sexual harassment.
In his note to staff Monday, Mr. Zhang said the company would introduce a dedicated reporting channel for instances of sexual harassment or assault, as well as a formalized anti-harassment policy. Online, many expressed surprise that the 22-year-old company, with hundreds of thousands of employees around the world, didn’t already have such policies in place.
According to the letter from employees, there is also a culture of “sex-related comments or games, as well as other acts of sexual harassment and assault in activities such as ice breaking, team building and business contacts.”
Such workplace culture is not exclusive to Alibaba. Women at tech firms in China have long complained of being encouraged to take part in lewd games during corporate events and are expected to put up with constant comments about their looks. A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch found multiple tech firms had posted job advertisements that touted the attractive “goddesses” working at the company, implying female colleagues were there to be ogled.
Such harassment compounds the already stressful environment of Chinese tech firms, where many employees are expected to keep to the infamous 996 schedule – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
Women are also often pressured to take part in client dinners, even if they do not work in sales, and drink heavily at such corporate gatherings. In Mr. Zhang’s note, he said that while the exact circumstances of the incident in Jinan have yet to be ascertained, Alibaba is “staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture.
“Whether it is a request made by a customer or a supervisor, our employees are empowered to reject it,” he wrote.
Alibaba closed down 2.17 per cent on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange Monday.
Alexandra Li contributed reporting from Beijing.
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