Alibaba Faces Reckoning Over Harassment

A rape accusation at the Chinese e-commerce giant has shed light on a work culture that some former employees say is humiliating and toxic.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

At an employee dinner, women were told to rank the attractiveness of the men at the table. During a team-building exercise, a woman was pressured to straddle her male co-worker in front of colleagues. Top executives traded lewd comments about male virility at company events and online.

The 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 secret to Alibaba’s success was that 49 percent of employees were women.

But that message of female empowerment is now being called into question after an Alibaba employee accused her boss of raping her after an alcohol-fueled business dinner. The woman, who has been identified by the police and her lawyers only by her surname, Zhou, said bosses and human resources had shrugged off her complaints. She eventually resorted to screaming about the assault in a company cafeteria last month.

“An Ali male executive raped a female subordinate, and no one in the company has pursued this,” Ms. Zhou yelled, according to a video that was posted on the internet.

Ms. Zhou’s case has caused an uproar within the company and across China’s tech establishment. Alibaba fired the man accused of rape, said it would establish an anti-sexual-harassment policy and declared itself “staunchly opposed to the ugly forced drinking culture.” Yet former Alibaba employees say the problems run much deeper than the company has acknowledged.

Interviews with nine former employees suggest that casual sexism is common at Alibaba. They describe a work environment in which women are made to feel embarrassed and belittled during team-building and other activities that the company has incorporated in its culture, a striking departure from the image of inclusion 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 of the matter. The company recently fired 10 employees for leaking information about the episode, according to two people familiar with the matter. Most former employees who spoke with The New York Times asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation.

Image

Mr. Ma presiding over a mock wedding ceremony at Alibaba’s annual “Ali Day” celebration in 2019.Credit…ChinaTopix, via Associated Press

In a statement to The Times, Alibaba said fostering a safe and supportive workplace was its top priority.

“When we have fallen short, we believe in taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable,” the statement said.

Alibaba made immediate changes to the way it handles workplace culture and misconduct matters after Ms. Zhou’s case came to light, the statement said. Upon examining its policies and reporting processes, the company found “certain areas that did not meet our standards,” the statement said.

The statement did not address any of the specific allegations made by the former employees who spoke to The Times.

Many Alibaba departments use games and other ice-breaking activities to make co-workers feel at ease with one another. Kiki Qian joined the company in 2017. Her team welcomed her with a game of charades. When she lost, she said, she was punished by being made to “fly the plane,” as her co-workers called it. The stunt involved straddling a male colleague as he sat in an office chair. The colleague then lay back in the chair, causing Ms. Qian to fall on top of him, face first.

“I realized while carrying out the punishment that it could be a little perverted,” Ms. Qian, 28, said in a telephone interview.

On a separate 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 game.

Other former Alibaba employees said ice-breaking rituals included uncomfortable questions about their sexual histories. One former employee said she and other women at a team dinner had been asked to rank their male colleagues by attractiveness. Another said she had felt humiliated during a game in which employees were required to touch each other on the 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 at Alibaba, she said. In 2018, she quit.

None of the women who spoke to The Times thought of complaining to human resources about their ice-breaking experiences. They said they were skeptical that their complaints would be taken seriously.

“There was no way you could complain about this; this was a tradition at Ali,” Ms. Qian said. “If you complain, people will think you’re the one with the problem.”

Ever since its early years as a small start-up, Alibaba has tried to cultivate a work environment of genial familiarity. Employees refer to one another using company nicknames. Managers show concern for workers’ personal and family lives.

But as the company has grown into a behemoth with more than a quarter-million employees, customs that might once have seemed playful seem less innocent now. In striving for closeness and camaraderie, Alibaba has allowed crude, sexualized talk to crop up in professional and sometimes highly visible settings.

Mr. Ma, the co-founder, has set the tone. Every year on May 10, dozens of Alibaba employees and their spouses or partners participate in a mock group wedding ceremony at the company’s “Ali Day” celebration. At the 2018 event, Mr. Ma joked onstage about how Alibaba’s grueling work hours affected employees’ sex lives.

Image

Former employees describe a work environment in which women are made to feel embarrassed and belittled during team-building activities.Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

“I heard it was seven times a day for some people before joining Alibaba, but not even once in seven days after,” he said. “This is a big problem.”

Mr. Ma went further with the riff at the next year’s ceremony.

“At work, we emphasize the 996 spirit,” he said, referring to the practice, common at Chinese internet companies, of working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

“In life, we need 669,” Mr. Ma said. “Six days, six times.” The Mandarin word for “nine” sounds the same as the word for “long-lasting.” The crowd hooted and clapped.

Alibaba shared the remarks, with a winking emoji, on its official account on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Wang Shuai, the company’s public relations chief, wrote on Weibo that Mr. Ma’s comments had reminded him of how good it was to be young. His post included vulgar references to his anatomy.

Alibaba also gives employees a handbook of morale-boosting “Alibaba slang.” Several entries are laced with sexual innuendo. One urges employees to be “fierce and able to last a long time.”

Feng Yuan, a prominent feminist in China, said the kind of behavior described at Alibaba could create the conditions under which bullying and harassment were quietly tolerated and promoted.

“In companies where men dominate, hierarchical power structures and toxic masculinity become strengthened over time,” Ms. Feng said. “They become hotbeds for sexual harassment and violence.”

Last month, Ms. Zhou shared her rape accusation on Alibaba’s internal website. According to her account of the events, her boss told a male client 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.

Boozy meals have long been widespread in corporate China, where it can be seen as 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. She was told that this was out of consideration for her reputation.

“This ridiculous logic,” she wrote. “Just who are they protecting?”

Elsie Chen contributed reporting. Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.

Leave a Reply