Tech Giant Alibaba’s Response to Sexual HarassmentGreg Garner
What makes for “good” company culture?
Is it diversity? A strong benefits package? Monthly team happy hours?
While these things certainly contribute to a positive work environment, most employees would agree that feeling valued and respected in the workplace ranks high on the list. This goes beyond just positive words of encouragement—but to fundamentally instill values of integrity throughout the organization.
A perfect example of this can be found in observing how a company responds to a crisis. In particular, the manner in which sexual harassment claims are addressed can make or break the culture that surrounds the company as a whole.
Tech giant Alibaba is a recent lesson in this, and just how harmful sexual harassment cases can be to a company when not taken seriously. In addition to avoiding costly sexual harassment lawsuits, steering clear of these scandals can go a long way in promoting the recruitment and retention of top female talent.
For more information on this case and how a similar fate can be avoided in your own workplace—read on below.
Sexual Harassment Case at Alibaba
In early August 2021, tech giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. faced a serious workplace sexual harassment case that made headlines around the world. According to a publication made on the company’s internal message board on Saturday, August 7th, a female employee came forward with allegations in the form of an 11-page account.
This employee claimed that Wang Chengwen—her supervisor—brought her to a client event. During this evening, he pressured her to drink excessively. He went on to kiss and grope her without consent.
The woman also detailed the lack of action from Alibaba managers after she first reported the incident on August 2nd. She demanded that the matter be properly addressed, with Changwen fired.
When her claims were ignored by management, the woman took her story to the internet. She was also reported to be handing out fliers in the company cafeteria, hoping to get her story out there.
Almost instantly, the story blazed across Chinese social media. It drew immediate backlash against Alibaba, and how the company handles these types of claims. In Hong Kong, Alibaba shares fell by more than four percent.
In an internal memo to Alibaba staff that was later published, Chief Executive Daniel Zhang stated that Chengwen did admit to partaking in “overly intimate acts” with the female employee, while she was under the influence of alcohol. He confessed to violating company policy.
Zhang’s memo also confirmed systemic challenges of sexism within the company—and within China, as a whole.
The Company’s Response
Following the claims, the manager in question was fired by Alibaba leadership. He cannot be rehired in the future.
In addition, two other employees resigned from their positions. This includes Li Yonghe, who was recently appointed to spearhead a newly-formed “local services division,” directing the company’s non-retail businesses across a variety of sectors.
This was a significant move, as this department has become one of the company’s fastest-growing arms as of late. A human resources chief also resigned.
Additionally, Chief People Officer Judy Tong was given a demerit on her employee record. The internal review of the matter showed the human resources department as a whole failed to display empathy and pay adequate attention to the claims.
The company plans to move forward, working with the police to conduct a full investigation of the situation.
Additionally, Alibaba is putting company-wide training into place, with a focus on employee rights protection. This includes anti-sexual harassment training, as well.
Should these events occur again in the future, Alibaba also established a reporting channel designated for the expediting of a response to such an issue.
No Stranger to Scandal
To make matters worse—all of this comes in the wake of a difficult, months-long investigation into potential monopolistic practices. Plus, it rides on the coattails of the #MeToo movement that rose to popularity in China in 2018, mostly over social media.
Much of this faces harsh censorship from the Chinese government, which touts the importance of preventing gender-based discrimination and equal opportunity in the workplace. But this remains mostly talk—with little to no enforcement mechanisms outside of the court of public opinion.
More recently, there was another public scandal in 2020 involving Jiang Fan—the company’s youngest partner at the time. Fan’s wife took to Weibo, a site similar to Twitter, to call out a prominent social media influencer. Fan’s wife sent a strong message—not to “mess” with her husband.
This issue quickly spiraled, as a frenzied rumor mill churned with speculation that Fan and the social media star were having an affair. Critics questioned whether this had any effect on the company’s business decisions or investments. Almost overnight, the simple online warning became a public relations nightmare.
Following this crisis, Fan was demoted. Again, censorship efforts played their role as online articles and social media posts about the scandal began to disappear.
There are many potential long-term effects of this crisis that can stain the company if not properly addressed.
To start, there is the potential for encouraging future acts of the same nature. While leadership certainly would not come out to support such behavior—failure to properly remedy the cultural challenges that allowed for such an incident to go unaddressed can inadvertently enable similar future acts.
Additionally, it puts a negative connotation on the company that can affect recruitment potential moving forward. This is especially true for young, female talent that may be dissuaded from pursuing opportunities in the organization.
Being such a large, globally recognized company, this is not something Alibaba can afford to risk.
Overall, both internal and external critics agree that a widespread change in company culture for Alibaba is a must. Most criticisms revolve around the fact that the company failed to respond to allegations appropriately, until after the claims went public.
Finally, the company rests on a large platform around the world. With their wide reach and deep pockets, they have an opportunity to make a tangible change for women in the workplace.
Alibaba did take the first step in publicly admitting to its failures and apologizing thoroughly. It’s now time to make it clear to the world that this type of behavior benefits nobody, and should be nipped in the bud wherever possible.
What Can Companies Do to Address Sexual Harassment Issues?
These days, for tech companies around the world—it’s survival of the fittest. This goes beyond making the best products at the best prices but includes company culture as well. Especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, employees can work from nearly anywhere, and top talent can choose from just about any company in their field.
Remaining competitive in recruiting and retaining top graduates and management candidates will continue to grow exponentially more difficult. Those companies that cannot adapt to the needs and wants of the modern employee will suffer. With more and more women entering the STEM field—this is especially true of females in the workplace.
Companies in tech as well as other industries should take a lesson from Alibaba’s crisis in regards to workplace sexual harassment. Learning goes beyond just training seminars for how to prevent a slip-up from occurring. It requires institutional change at all levels.
Instilling internal policies, practices, and procedures to combat sexual harassment—and to adequately address it if it does happen—is essential. It’s impossible to prevent negative events from occurring within a company, but going the extra mile to mitigate it can make or break a company’s success.
Additionally, when valid concerns are brought to leadership, there should be a clearly defined process for a response. Every claim should be investigated, and properly addressed as soon as possible—while still maintaining a sense of due process for all involved.
There should be no question from your employees, managers, and executives, on whether or not this type of behavior is tolerated at work. Should it occur in the future—the response process should be black-and-white.
Learning From Alibaba’s Mistakes
Alibaba—often called the Amazon of China—made headlines across the world with the events of this sexual harassment scandal. Almost worse than the event itself is the lack of action on the part of Alibaba leadership, and the negative stain it continues to leave on the company’s name.
It’s imperative that companies across all industries learn from the mistakes of this organization, and strive to establish a more inclusive and respect-driven workplace.
If you found this content interesting, check out our other articles!