Alibaba fires 10 employees for leaking details of sexual assault

Details of the assault turned Alibaba into the highest-profile symbol of the abuses prevalent in Chinese tech firms.

Alibaba says it is against company policy to share information from employee forums [File: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg]

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has dismissed 10 staffers for publicizing an employee’s account of sexual assault allegations against a former manager, people familiar with the matter said, as the e-commerce giant moves to resolve a case that’s rocked China’s tech establishment.

Alibaba announced internally last week it fired the group for sharing a harrowing account posted on an internal forum by a colleague surnamed Zhou, who accused a former manager of rape. Their offenses include sharing screenshots of the woman’s post in the public domain after removing watermarks that bore their IDs, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing an internal matter. Another three people have been reprimanded for making inappropriate comments in public forums, they added.

Zhou’s account went viral this month and turned China’s No. 2 company into the highest-profile symbol of abuses regarded as prevalent throughout Chinese businesses and tech firms, the by-product of an environment that often prioritizes achievement over culture. Alibaba has dismissed the accused manager and accepted the resignations of two senior executives, acting after the case sparked debate about sexism in corporate circles.

Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang has acknowledged his company’s handling of the complaint was a “humiliation.” Zhou’s account of being forced to drink excessively and getting harassed during and after a dinner with clients has aroused widespread sympathy for her plight, including internally.

But Alibaba had little choice but to fire the 10 employees in question because they violated very strict policies against exposing content carried on employee forums, the people said. The internal platform — which is open to Alibaba’s 250,000 employees as well as many at fintech giant Ant Group Co. — is considered off-limits and the company has fired others for leaking information in the past, they added. Alibaba representatives didn’t immediately respond to a written request for comment.

The Alibaba incident this month shone a spotlight on criticisms that Chinese women are overlooked, objectified or forced to take part in male-dominated rituals like drinking with clients, then brushed aside when reporting abuse. It coincides with intense government scrutiny on issues ranging from exploitative and monopolistic behavior to the abuse of low-wage workers.

Zhou posted her lengthy account internally after claiming to have made no progress in two weeks of complaining directly to supervisors and human resources, culminating in a dinner-time protest at one of Alibaba’s staff cafeterias.

The company launched an internal probe after her demonstration was captured on video and viewed millions of times online. Alibaba later publicly reprimanded its head of human resources, set up a hotline for sexual harassment complaints and created a high-level committee to resolve future disputes.

Alibaba made its decision to fire the 10 workers after wrapping up an internal investigation in past weeks, other people familiar with the matter said. It hasn’t announced the final results of that probe to the public, they said.

Chinese police made their first arrest in the case last week, a former employee of Jinan Hualian Supermarket surnamed Zhang who was at the dinner with Zhou. Her ex-manager, surnamed Wang, remains under investigation by the police on suspicion of “forcible indecency” — a charge that can encompass sexual assault.

Source: Bloomberg