Alibaba’s Night of Shame
28 Aug, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:2747

Negligent Executives

The ire this incident has incited has also been directed at Alibaba’s corporate culture, which has known its share of scandals, and which apparently doesn’t preclude some managers forcing female employees to drink and allowing clients to sexually harass them.

In 2018, a clause was added to China’s Civil Code, which specified that employers have an obligation to take various measures to put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, the addition did not provide penalties for noncompliance; it merely encourages employers to establish internal measures that counter sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.

Judging from the public record of how Alibaba treated this incident, a lawyer who has dealt with multiple sexual assault cases in China believes that the company may not have established any of the aforementioned internal measures, “or, if they had, they didn’t abide by them.” Therefore, in this incident, Alibaba should be held liable for failing to uphold their responsibility to deal properly with cases of sexual harassment and assault, the lawyer said.

On August 2, Zhou traveled to Hangzhou with her husband. She reported Wang to his supervisors as well as to a human resources officer. She demanded that Wang be fired and that she be allowed to take an extended vacation. That evening, the human resources director for the Hyperlocal Retail Business Group also learned of the matter and immediately participated in an internal investigation.

On August 5, Zhou received a “ridiculous” response that she said left her speechless: “In consideration of [Zhou’s] reputation, [Wang] will not be dismissed.”

In its investigation report, Alibaba says that on the day following Zhou’s accusation, the human resources department and senior executives found that her description of events was totally at odds with Wang’s. That night, the president of the Hyperlocal Retail Business Group also learned of the incident but did not take the initiative to intervene. Management and HR decided to wait for the results of the police investigation rather than immediately suspending Wang.

After the incident, an Alibaba manager commented that the company’s handling of the case was “tremendously shameful” and “beyond comprehension.” But, when asked what he would do if something similar happened on his own team, he didn’t answer. Another middle-level manager said that he would certainly not handle the matter in the same way but never specified what he would have done instead.

In this huge company, most managers were uncertain what measures they should adopt when dealing with complaints of sexual harassment, or the company’s mechanisms for doing so.

The messages sent by senior executives in response to Zhou’s post on the company’s internal platform have only further intensified public indignation. Alibaba employees and the public judged these replies as indifferent and lacking empathy. One Alibaba employee said regarding the messages: “Our executives are completely incapable of speaking properly.”

The reply that Alibaba partner and Chief Personnel Officer Judy Tong sent 3 hours after Zhou’s post was widely shared on social media because of its impersonal corporate jargon. One particular phrase that has raised eyebrows is: “Regarding this event and its subsequent investigation process, we will carry out a review to determine whether or not problems occurred.”

At 8 a.m. on August 8, another Alibaba top executive, Jane Jiang, replied, “When the forest grows, there are all kinds of birds” — a Chinese idiom meaning that, when an organization has a lot of members, there are bound to be a few bad eggs.

In the early morning of August 9, Alibaba Group CEO and chairman of the board of directors Daniel Zhang announced that the Hyperlocal Retail Business Group’s president and human resources director had both admitted they had made mistakes and resigned. He added that Chief Personnel Officer Judy Tong had been penalized and the details of her punishment had been noted on her employee record, while the male employee at the heart of the accusations — meaning Wang — had been permanently dismissed with no possibility of being rehired.

A person familiar with Alibaba’s management style said that they believe there are two systematic reasons behind the poor handling of this incident. The first is that everything in the company is business-oriented, with more emphasis placed on performance than on individual employees’ wellbeing. This is why Wang was not suspended the moment the accusations arose.

The second reason, they said, is the immense pressure the company’s executives place on lower-ranking employees; supervisors directly decide on the promotion or dismissal of their subordinates. This would have made it near impossible for Zhou to refuse to accompany her supervisor on a business trip or drink the alcohol he offered her. Until recently, the company used a harsh “3-6-1” evaluation system — whereby 30% of employees are awarded full points, 60% score somewhere in the middle, and the lowest-ranking 10% have their annual bonuses and opportunities for promotion taken away as a penalty. (Forcible bonus cancelations for the worst-performing 10% were removed at the end of 2020.)

It was only at 2:31 a.m. on August 8, hours after outrage had already spread across the Chinese web, that CEO Daniel Zhang stated he’d been made aware of the situation. Seemingly, he had not been informed of Zhou’s protest in the company cafeteria two days beforehand. This potentially means that whoever should have reported this incident to Daniel Zhang didn’t do so straight away, but instead chose to ignore the matter until they had no choice.

Alibaba employees can contact the CEO directly through DingTalk, but Zhou’s post suggests that, rather than reaching out to Daniel Zhang first, she went no higher than the president of the Hyperlocal Retail Business Group. In this incident, the channels of communication between different levels of the company hierarchy — from “business units” to “business groups,” from business groups to HR, and from HR to the CEO — all broke down.

Despite these failings at the top, on the evening of August 7, Alibaba employees — in a heartening show of solidarity — launched a group on DingTalk that quickly grew from a few hundred to more than 6,000 members. Their goal was to stand behind Zhou and provide her with psychological and legal assistance. The two founders of the group have joined the team organized by Alibaba to supervise the investigation process.

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