After Proudly Celebrating Women, Alibaba Faces Reckoning Over Harassment

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 her complaints were shrugged off by bosses and human resources. She eventually resorted to screaming about the incident 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.

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

“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.”

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 incident 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, and Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.

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