Alibaba faces harassment
At an employee dinner, women were asked to rank the attractiveness of men at the table. During a team building exercise, a woman was forced to straddle her male colleague in front of her colleagues. Senior executives have traded obscene comments about male virility at corporate events and online.
E-commerce giant Alibaba, one of China’s most globalized internet companies, has often celebrated the number of women in its senior ranks. In 2018, the company’s billionaire co-founder, Jack Ma, told a conference in Geneva that one of the secrets to Alibaba’s success was that 49% of employees were women.
But that women’s empowerment message is now in question after an Alibaba employee accused her boss of raping her after an alcohol-fueled business dinner. The woman, who was only identified by police and her lawyers by her last name, Zhou, said bosses and human resources ignored her complaints. She eventually resorted to screaming assault in a company cafeteria last month.
“A male officer of Ali raped a subordinate, and no one in the company sued this,” Ms. Zhou shouted, according to a video posted on the Internet.
Ms. Zhou’s case has sparked an uproar within the company and within the Chinese tech establishment. Alibaba fired the man accused of rape, said he would establish an anti-sexual harassment policy and said he was “strongly opposed to the horrible culture of forced consumption.” Still, former Alibaba employees say the issues run much deeper than the company has acknowledged.
Interviews with nine former employees suggest that occasional sexism is common at Alibaba. They describe a work environment in which women feel embarrassed and demeaned during team building and other activities that the company has incorporated into its culture, a stark departure from the image of inclusion that Alibaba has. tried to project.
The police investigation into Ms. Zhou’s case is continuing. Alibaba appears to be trying to keep a lid on discussions on the matter. The company recently fired 10 employees for leaking information about the episode, according to two people familiar with the matter. Most of the former employees who spoke to the New York Times have requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
In a statement to The Times, Alibaba said promoting a safe and supportive workplace is its top priority.
“When we have failed, we believe in taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable,” the statement said.
Alibaba made immediate changes to the way it handles issues of culture and misconduct in the workplace after Ms. Zhou’s case came to light, the statement said. After reviewing its policies and reporting processes, the company found “some areas that did not meet our standards,” the statement said.
The statement did not address any of the specific allegations made by former employees who spoke to The Times.
Many Alibaba departments use games and other ice-breaking activities to make coworkers feel comfortable with each other. Kiki Qian joined the company in 2017. Her team greeted her with a game of charades. When she lost, she said, she was punished by being forced to “fly the plane,” as her colleagues called it. The stunt involved straddling a male colleague as he sat in an office chair. The colleague then lay down on the chair, causing Ms. Qian to fall on top of him, head first.
“I realized while performing the punishment that it could be a bit perverted,” Ms. Qian, 28, said in a telephone interview.
On another occasion, Ms. Qian said, she saw a woman burst into tears after being pressured to jump into the arms of a male colleague during a team match.
Other former Alibaba employees said the ice-breaking rituals included uncomfortable questions about their sexual histories. A former employee said she and other women at a team dinner were asked to rank their male colleagues by attractiveness. Another said she felt humiliated during a game in which employees had to touch their shoulders, back and thighs.
After Ms. Qian told her boss that she would no longer participate in such activities, it became clear to her that she would never advance to Alibaba, she said. In 2018, she resigned.
None of the women who spoke to The Times thought of complaining to human resources about their icebreaker experiences. They said they were skeptical that their complaints would be taken seriously.
“You couldn’t complain about that; it was a tradition at Ali, ”Ms. Qian said. “If you complain, people will think you have the problem.
From its early years as a small start-up, Alibaba has tried to cultivate a friendly work environment. Employees refer to each other using corporate nicknames. Managers care about the personal and family lives of workers.
But as the company has grown into a giant with over a quarter of a million employees, customs that once seemed playful seem less innocent now. By seeking closeness and camaraderie, Alibaba has allowed rude and sexualized words to arise in professional and sometimes highly visible settings.
Mr. Ma, the co-founder, set the tone. Every year on May 10, dozens of Alibaba employees and their spouses or partners participate in a mock group wedding ceremony during the company’s “Ali Day” celebration. At the 2018 event, Mr. Ma joked on stage about how Alibaba’s grueling working hours affected employees’ sex lives.
“I heard it was seven times a day for some people before joining Alibaba, but not even once every seven days after,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
Mr. Ma took the riff a step further at the ceremony the following year.
“At work, we focus on Spirit 996,” he said, referring to the common practice in Chinese Internet companies of working 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.
“In life, we need 669,” Mr. Ma said. “Six days, six times. The Mandarin word for “new” sounds the same as the word for “durable”. The crowd hooted and applauded.
Alibaba shared the remarks, along with a blinking emoji, on its official account on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Wang Shuai, the company’s head of public relations, wrote on Weibo that Mr. Ma’s comments reminded him of how good it was to be young. His post included vulgar references to his anatomy.
Alibaba also gives employees a morale-boosting “Alibaba slang” manual. Several entries are riddled with sexual innuendo. One urges employees to be “fierce and able to last a long time.”
Feng Yuan, a leading feminist in China, said the type of behavior described to Alibaba could create the conditions in which bullying and harassment was quietly tolerated and encouraged.
“In companies where men dominate, hierarchical power structures and toxic masculinity strengthen over time,” Ms. Feng said. “They become hotbeds of sexual harassment and violence. “
Last month, Ms. Zhou shared her rape charge on Alibaba’s internal website. According to her account of the events, her boss told a male customer who was also at the alcohol-fueled business dinner: “Look how good I am to you; I brought you a beauty, ”referring to Ms. Zhou.
Alcoholic meals have long been prevalent in Chinese businesses, where it can be considered offensive to refuse to drink with a superior. Three days after Ms. Zhou reported the assault to Alibaba, her boss still had not been fired, she wrote in her account. He was told it was out of consideration for his reputation.
“This ridiculous logic,” she wrote. “Who exactly are they protecting? “
Elsie Chen contributed reports. Albee zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.