On October 23, Ge Hong, the lead for China Airbnb, departed the company without any warning, after just four months on the job.
Airbnb didn’t offer much detail in its announcement, only saying that Ge was leaving “to pursue other opportunities.” Even stranger was that, before he left, Airbnb’s cofounder Nathan Blecharczyk was said to be taking up the position of lead for the China division; after the announcement, though, it was said that the director for Airbnb Singapore, Siew Kum-Hong, would be taking up the post temporarily instead.
So, a cofounder out in the air, a sudden departure—it’s easy to write it all off as just another setback for Airbnb’s long-suffering China division, but Ge’s departure, and word of what was taking place in the China office, has had an explosive effect, even back in Silicon Valley.
Speculation came thick and fast as soon as the announcement was made. Claims went back and forth about failed attempts at “political correctness,” unrealistic KPIs that couldn’t be met, even that there were legal issues related to Airbnb China’s registered Chinese name (Aibiying). Many, however, just assumed that the underlying problem was poor service.
But it seems Ge’s departure came down to issues that unfortunately have become all too familiar to Silicon Valley of late: misconduct and mismanagement, with a side of sexual scandal.
Ge, an alumnus of Tsinghua University and Yale, obtained a master’s degree in computer science, and after graduating joined Google and its AdSense division. In 2009, he moved to Facebook to serve as its Engineering Director, where he was responsible for creating the News Feed ad system.
With six years of experience at first tier companies behind him, Ge then jumped to Airbnb, where he was made a global vice director and was put in charge of remaking Airbnb’s China operations.
But then, in September, the following review popped up on Glassdoor.
This would be a damning review for any company, let alone one that puts so much stock in a positive company culture like Airbnb. Of course, were it just one review, it could be overlooked, but sources we spoke with confirmed that this was not just the errant complaint of one disgruntled employee.
More and more such material began to emerge, including another post that directly implicated the head of engineering in “hostile and abusive” management.
Internal sources told us that the head of engineering cursed out and abused employees on numerous occasions, eroding morale.
On the Q&A site Zhihu, one anonymous poster had this to say:
“One word wrong, and she’d abuse you, even attack you, terrifying the subordinate engineers. Two people became so depressed they had to seek clinical treatment. One of them left Airbnb China and returned to the US. Another was terrorized into quitting and went to join Toutiao.”
So as the head of engineering drove the China team almost to “collapse,” as one person put it, some of the staff who had originally come over from Airbnb’s headquarters applied to return, while local employees shifted to other companies.
“People lost faith,” said one employee. Anger among the staff even turned towards upper level management, with some questioning just how real their acclaimed company values could actually be.
And even as this was happening—with an internal crisis, the company’s culture being challenged, and staff slipping away—it seems that Ge did not intervene. Worse, he may even have shielded the head of engineering even after multiple and repeated reports against her from staff.
Curiously, it seems that Ge and the head of engineering had known each other for years, as their LinkedIn profiles show they both worked at Facebook as part of the News Feed team, with a crossover of more than three years.
The erstwhile head of engineering had moved from Facebook to Airbnb at the start of 2015 as an engineering manager. When a year later Ge was brought onboard and appointed to lead the China team, he apparently brought her over and promoted her to head of engineering.
Some of the staff seemed to doubt whether she was sufficiently experienced for the role, but the landing team brought over from Silicon Valley was admittedly short-staffed at first. Regardless of her qualifications, though, her management style and treatment of employees caused a storm in the China office.
And allegedly, Ge and the head of engineering were in a relationship.
That posed an obvious problem for staff, as Ge became reluctant to act on complaints against the head of engineering.
As the whole thing blew up, Airbnb’s top management finally stepped in. Ge was summoned back to the head office, where it was agreed he would resign. Airbnb then announced that Nathan Blecharczyk would soon become chairman of Airbnb China, with Siew Kum-Hong presiding in the interim.
Yet from the complaints, including the repeated feedback to the head office about Ge, or the issues raised through HR channels, it seems that the problem was not addressed quickly enough for the Beijing staff.
Despite concerns being raised earlier, the China staff did not receive a satisfactory response. When the head office did eventually intervene, its investigation took less than a week, with a new appointment coming immediately. No further explanation or comment was given, nor was anything done for the colleagues who had been on the victims of the abuse.
Ge’s departure is not the end of it, though, and the controversy has already had repercussions beyond the China division.
Whether in public channels or anonymous forums, one comment that has been made repeatedly is that this event has “damaged the company culture.”
That’s no small thing. As one of the first and leading companies of the sharing economy, Airbnb has staked a lot on culture and values. In 2013, founder and CEO Brian Chesky quoted Peter Thiel in saying that the most important commandment for Airbnb was: “Don’t fuck up the culture.”
And what is that culture? According to Chesky it is rooted in cooperation and passion, while the company’s VP of Engineering has said that Airbnb is no longer a startup, but a company undergoing the challenges of scale. The difficulties are in how to expand and solve the problems brought on by growth without losing their company culture.
But the events in the China office, allowed to fester for so long, neglected by the leadership in spite of repeated warnings and alerts, have tested Airbnb’s commitment to its stated values. And worryingly, in this case of ideals facing off against reality, that commitment proved far weaker than many had supposed.
Thus the misconduct of a couple of managers in one office may yet have an effect on the whole of the company.