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When Chinese Employees Ask for Justice, Facebook Silence Their Voices: Investigation

Chen Du Ran Yu Rebbeca Ren

posted on October 10, 2019 7:30 amEditor : Vicky Xiao

September 26 was an unforgettable day for many Chinese migrant tech workers in Silicon Valley, as hundreds of them gathered on a blazing hot day at Facebook’s "Thumbs up" sign at the entrance to the social network company’s Menlo Park, CA, headquarters, to hold a vigil for a Facebook employee who took his own life after allegedly bullied in the company and suffering extremely excessive work pressure.

Mr. Qin Chen, who was 38 years old when he jumped off a four-story company building in an apparant suicide, had been working for Facebook’s notoriously excruciating Ads department for less than 20 months on a working visa.

Multiple attendees expressed their sympathy for Mr. Chen and the indignation that he may have suffered unfair treatment before his death. 

Sources revealed to PingWest after the event that members of Mr. Chen's family and his close friends attended the vigil without revealing their identity.

Most Attendees wore black, held white flowers and were patiently waiting for the commemoration to begin as a handful of tourists, visually unaware of what the hundreds of people gathered around were about to do, were still taking photos in front of the sign, with many smaller signs put in place by the vigil attendees included in their selfies. 

One of the organizers of the event, a woman by the alias of Mangogogo, claimed that there was no official follow-up statements from the company after the incident, and that she felt outraged. "Mr. Chen sacrificed his life for the final fight, but no one has come out and said anything for him," which according to her explanation was what led to her organizing the event.

Forum posts about a potential vigil event received overwhelming support and a GoFundMe campaign set up by the organizers to cover materials and attendees’ travel expenses soon raised about 6,000 dollars.

"I let my colleagues know about the tragedy. Lots of them came from different countries and supported me in joining the event here as Mr. Chen’s experience was something that many of us can relate to," Mr. Wang, who attended the vigil, does not work for Facebook and did not share his full name, told PingWest.

"If you don't do anything today, this situation will never change! Each of you is the hope of the Chinese people in Silicon Valley!" Mr. Yi Yin, a senior software engineer who joined Facebook three months ago and was fired from the company one week after the vigil, spoke to the crowd through a loudspeaker.

Mr. Yin, who was visually furious, led people to repeat the slogan— "Give us the truth, Zuckerberg!"—in a husky voice. He also called on attendees to send emails to Mark Zuckerberg, asking the Facebook co-founder and CEO to conduct an internal investigation and release the truth. 

Pamela Austin, a Facebook spokesperson who was at the vigil event, told PingWest that the company is doing its best to work with local authorities and stakeholders. However, Austin did not respond if there were any internal investigations and progress on the matter or not. 

Yi told PingWest that he felt extremely depressed when he learned about Mr. Chen's death. "I have never worked in the same group with Chen. I even don't know him before, but I did hear of his story and I think that we share some similarities," referring to the fact that both of them were born in the 1980s, and are both facing the uncertainties of a migrant tech worker living in a country with ever changing working visa policies, "maybe all the things he had suffered will happen to me one day."

After weeks of interviewing sources within the company, including employees who had worked in the same and overlapping internal groups with Mr. Chen and possess of first hand information on his tragedy, PingWest was able to piece together what is ultimately closer to the truth of what happened to Mr. Chen in the days leading to his final moment.

This investigation found out that as Facebook grew to its scale of today, its management still wish to maintain the company’s image as a fast-paced startup with high growth. That expectation, met with the extraordinarily high pressure at Facebook’s Ads department, resulted in the pressure to maintain growth being passed onto managers, and engineers, known in the company as individual contributors, or ICs.

That is partially because Facebook's Ads department, the most profitable unit of the tech giant, where Mr. Chen worked, is under a circumstance more complicated than other businesses, products and departments within the company. At Ads department, even a minor error may trigger a severe revenue decline.

Based on the information provided by multiple sources, PingWest also discovered that Facebook is actively attempting to block internal discussions of Mr. Chen's death. Employees were discouraged to talk about the incident, verbally and in written form, with other employees and people outside of the company, including Mr. Chen’s family, lawyers and members of the press, leading to employees questioning if the ban violated their rights. 

Mr. Yin, the only known Facebook employee who revealed his identity and asked to be on the record when talking to the press, was fired from the company for reasons of "lack of judgement" according to the company.

Facebook has lost its footing as the top-rated employer, after its ranking on Glassdoor's 2019 list of the "Best Places to Work" dropped from last year’s No. 1 to seventh.

Currently, the social media giant is well known for the high-pressure work atmosphere in the industry. 

"Frankly speaking, on a scale of one to ten, the pressure of my work was about five or six. But after this tragedy, I am rethinking whether if it is my standards that were problematic," said an employee who works for Facebook’s Ads department, was an acquaintance of Mr. Chen and asked for anonymity.

Eric, a senior staff of the company whose wanted his full name to be omitted for privacy reasons, believed that the company has generally treated its employees with great care. "It is among the top 1% in the United States." However, he admitted that the overall pressure is tremendous.

Nevertheless, being able to work for such a dominant company in the tech industry that is connecting and reshaping the world is still what many Chinese engineers dream of. For them, who are often on optional practice training or OPT, a temporary employment status for overseas students, and those desperate for an H-1B working visa, an offer from Facebook is good enough to make them put all the dissatisfactions aside.

However, with the arrival of performance evaluations, known as performance summary cycle or PSC, the delightful expectation will be gradually replaced by the ruthless reality.

ICs were required to write summary letters to evaluate their own performance and their managers’, and solicit peer reviews from co-workers. Then, the manager will read the letters and quantify the impacts of each IC has made, as well as the tasks they failed to finish during the course of the past six months. The work moves up the chain to directors and vice presidents, who will be doing final calibrations on a larger scale.

Employees are given one of seven grades. According to sources, the ratings are starting from the highest grade "Redefine," which is given to mere 2-5% of all employees, follows by "Greatly Exceeds Expectations," ""Exceeds," ""Meets all," and so on. Designed by Jack Welch at General Electric in the 1990s and known as "stack ranking," this evaluation system is relatively common in Silicon Valley and was used by companies including Facebook. Amazon. Microsoft got rid of it in 2013 after widespread employee complaints.

From the highest grade to the worst, the proportion of each interval is relatively stable and always presents a pattern of normal distribution. This leads to an unavoidable situation: despite that maybe all ICs achieved great results, someone has to be placed in a more inferior range.

Mr. Chen was a member of Facebook’s Ads Targeting Product, a group known in the company to have high working pressure. Since advertising provided nearly all of Facebook’s income, the employees of the group as well as the whole Ads department bear huge responsibilities.

As of September, Chen had worked at Facebook for one year and seven months. During his last PSC, his manager gave him a "Meets Most" rating.

"Don't be tricked by the wordplay. "Meets Most" is the most damaging review," Yin Yi told PingWest, despite the fact that in the system of stack ranking, even worse ratings exist, "the manager will normally not give a worse evaluation than this."

At Facebook, one "Meets Most" rating is powerful enough to put engineers in a dire position. For example, an employee who gets a "Meets Most" is likely to be assigned to the Performance Improvement Plan, also known in the tech industry as PIP, a beautified version of getting fired after 90 days, as employees who enter PIP will likely be recommended by friends and colleagues to immediately optimize their resumes and prepare for job interviews.

Relevant sources unveiled that before Mr. Chen’s last PSC, he had already been under pressure from the advertising department, so he expected to shift to other groups to maintain his job in Facebook and the opportunity to work in the United States.

According to informed sources told PingWest that, Mr. Chen’s group had undergone organizational restructuring, during which the group’s original manager hopped to another group. A new manager was hired to lead Mr. Chen’s group, but the manager soon realized that many of his ICs were already transferring groups, resulting in a sharply-increased workload per capita within the group. 

Mr. Chen, who was already in high pressure, submitted his transfer request as well, and was pre-approved by another group, meaning that all that’s left is to have his own manager sign off on the transfer. 

The new manager reportedly gave Mr. Chen verbal approval and told him to stay on the team until the PSC, but eventually gave him the "Meets Most" rating, which factually voided Mr. Chen's transfer request because the other group is very unlikely to accommodate a new IC who just received the worst possible rating, according to Facebook internal sources close to Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen, who had been on the verge of collapse, was mentally pushed off the edge by a Facebook robot, according to people familiar with the matter as well as other employees on Blind, an anonymous workplace social networking app.

Two weeks before the tragedy, the Facebook advertising system experienced a Severe Site Event (SEV), which is essentially a server crash. A SEV management bot created a task for the SEV to be resolved and assigned the task to Mr. Chen, requiring him to fix the bug and submit the SEV report before the deadline, which is roughly one hour after the time of his death.

Mr. Chen tried to push the deadline to be delayed but another bot monitoring the SEV rejected the change and maintained the deadline to be met in 12 days.

SEVs at Facebook’s Ads department aren’t usually the direct result of the fault of someone at the department, as an employee who wanted to remain anonymous and working in an adjacent group to Mr. Chen’s told PingWest that they are sometimes the result of the continued development of a very complicated computer system. For example, a current contribution to the system may trigger a previous line of code running perfectly to lose dependency and suddenly malfunction.

Other Facebook employees working in the department posted on Blind, that it’s usually other people at Facebook "move fast" causes things to break in their groups, a satirical homage to the company’s previous motto of "Move Fast and Break Things".

"Meets most". A failed transfer. A SEV. The mounting pressure finally broke Mr. Chen.

To some extent, the rating system, the encouragement on transferring groups, the motto and many other things that were designed to help employees to adjust, adapt, and improve, are just a set of traps for them in the end.

CNBC reported that in October 2018, at a company-wide town hall, a female employee got up to speak, addressing her comments directly to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. "I was reticent to speak, Sheryl, because the pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts," she said, "There shouldn't be this pressure to pretend to love something when I don't feel this way."

Mark Zuckerberg holding a Facebook town hall event. Image Credit: Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg holding a Facebook town hall event. Image Credit: Facebook

One night in Oct. 2003, Mark Zuckerberg broke up with his girlfriend at the time. Under the influence of alcohol, he successfully scraped large quantities of pictures of his female schoolmates at the Harvard University, and coded a website called FaceMash that compares to pictures and let users click on the one they find more attractive.

Facemash, which took Zuckerberg only a few hours to make, as well as the first version of Facebook, which took roughly a month to build and became an instant blast among university students, were both manifestations of how badly Zuckerberg wanted things, and how quickly he wanted them. 

Facebook has kept a fast pace since its establishment. Although going public as early as in 2012, and owning top apps such as Whatsapp, Instagram, the Silicon Valley tech giant is still attempting to keep a fast growth despite the fact that it is already a giant company with over 30,000 employees worldwide.

However, Mr. Chen’s suicide again raised the question: Facebook continues to chase fast growth, but at what cost?

Zuckerberg announced to change Facebook’s motto from "Move Fast and Break Things" to "Move Fast With Stable Infra" in 2014. Brian Boland, the VP of ad technology at Facebook, explained at the time that, "In the past we’ve done more stuff to just ship things quickly and see what happens in the market. Now, instead of just throwing something out there, we’re making sure that we’re getting it right first."

Nevertheless, "Move Fast" is still kept in the motto. Facebook has never stopped seeking fast growth like a startup. The company even required its staff to "move faster", when Zuckerberg pledged to developers that Facebook bugs will be expected to be patched within 48 hours.

Facebook’s Q2 2019 earnings showed that the company’s ads revenue were $16.6 billion, representing nearly all of its revenue during the quarter. Meanwhile, its profit margin was at 27%, a drop of 12%. Earnings Per Share was only $0.91 (versus $1.74 expected), down 48% yoy.

The anonymous Ads department employee told PingWest that Facebook is no longer a startup years ago, but the company still keeps the way it grew, causing the whole company and each individual employee to undergo extreme stress to outperform.

"For example," the employee was trying to demonstrate the heavy pressure staff like him in the ads department face, "at an early age, if the department worked on five projects, with four of them failed and one successful, the performance of staff in the ads department would be great, and we might even see the revenue double. But the company is a giant one now, and even if you got all the things right, revenue still may not increase. 

To put it in another way, you have to constantly outperform to see a meaningful revenue growth, and on the contrary, one mistake would cause a dramatic decline," the employee said.

As such, a number of departments at Facebook gradually changed from encouraging employees to face pressure head on and learn through trials and errors, to a conservative organization which prioritizes end results, according to the employee

Silicon Valley encourages the "take ownership" culture, inspiring employees to find out, raise, and solve problems by themselves, even though those problems have nothing to do with them. This culture is able to help companies grow fast.

According to the anonymous Facebook Ads employee, SEV was originally designed to help ICs increase their sense of ownership. Employees who fixed major bugs were once cheered as heroes because they would have saved millions of revenue for the company, "nowadays, the pressure is simply too high. The culture is still here, but ads department is too special. The SEV mechanism does not work well for many engineers here," the employee mentioned above told PingWest.

Individual employees will never be able to confront the system and get what they want as long as the system is in place. 

Facebook claimed that it offers plenty of internal and external resources, including counseling services to help those who have suicidal thoughts. PingWest learned that these resources are mainly provided by a San Francisco-based firm named Lyra Health, which offers services to staff at Facebook, Lyft, and more.

However, many Facebook sources who talked to PingWest seem to think that it’s not helpful to focus obsessively on the last moment Mr. Chen spent, the "last straw" that knockdown him, his mental issues, since they think that it was the institution which Facebook built and eventually used to abuse its engineers, especially those like Mr. Chen, who were on working visas or OPTs that really left Mr. Chen with no options.

"Everyone has vulnerable time, but we cannot ignore that Facebook also has its institutional problems." Yin Yi told PingWest.

Law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp announced on Monday, September 30 to start the investigation of Mr. Chen’s suicide, and call on insiders to contact the firm.

Ms. Austin emphasized that Facebook’s official position is not opposed to memorial activities like the one happened outside its campus on Sep. 26th, for that it believes in the freedom of expression, and that it is important to give people the opportunity to grieve.

However, PingWest’s investigation found that Facebook is actively suppressing internal discussion of Mr. Chen’s death and asked some employees to stop talking about the incident to anyone, especially outside the company.

One employee that violated Facebook’s order had since been fired.

PingWest acquired an exclusive email delivered to Mr. Yin from the human resources personnel embedded in his group, showing that the company forbid him to talk about the incident to anyone on grounds of protecting Mr.Chen and his family’s privacy. The email claimed that all communications are being managed by internal teams.

Many Facebook employees who spoke to PingWest on the condition of anonymity say that from their perspective, only a small number of employees that knew about Mr. Chen’s death one week after the incident, because they feel like the company failed to notify employees about the incident and make relevant information sufficiently available. The number is likely larger now as more employees began to discuss the incident.

On Sep. 26, Mr. Yin accepted interviews from media outlets including ABC, and told his director about the interviews afterwards in a one-on-one meeting, and relayed information including the name of the outlets, the questions asked and how he answered. He recalled one of the questions asked by a U.S. media was that if Facebook is suppressing discussion on the incident, and that at the time he did not think so.

"But not anymore," he told PingWest, referring to the email he received.

Mr. Yin claimed that he watched as his director typed the report of their one-on-one meeting into his computer and pressed the send button. Afterwards, he told his director in a small talk that he was busy with many personal affairs and felt stressed. Unexpectedly, in the email he later received, a company HR emphasized to him that the company offers psychological help and told the contact information to him, which he suspected was the result of his director snitching him out nad made him feel betrayed.

During a follow-up meeting on Sep. 27, the HR personnel again verbally warned that Mr. Yin should refrain from speaking to anyone about the incident again, which triggered Mr. Yin.

He told the HR personnel during the meeting that he had already met with Mr. Chen’s family and close friends to discuss the incident. The HR personnel then threatened to escalate the situation and report Mr. Yin to even higher superiors. "If Mr. Chen’s family and I want to meet, then there is no reason for the company to prevent us from doing so. That would be a violation of human rights." Mr. Yin told PingWest, saying that he made every effort to remain polite and non-confrontational on the scene.

What happened over the course of the following week opened Mr. Yin’s eyes. 

Mr. Yi Yin. Image Credit: Chen Du/PingWest
Mr. Yi Yin. Image Credit: Chen Du/PingWest

On Wednesday Oct. 2nd, Mr Yin received a final warning letter, which he did not sign therefore did not know the exact content of it. He went on to discuss the matter with his mentor inside his group at Facebook’s Growth Notification, a female coworker who has longer experience in the company than him.

The female coworker’s reaction was somewhat unexpected according to Mr. Yin, who recalled her sternly refusing to answer his question of whether or not receiving the final warning letter means he’s terminated, and telling him that the conversation made her feel uncomfortable. Mr. Yin was then notified twice on Oct. 3rd and 4th to not come to the campus and instead work from home.

On Monday, October 7th, Mr. Yin officially got fired via a conference call. The reason for his termination was "lack of judgement", according to a follow-up email shown to PingWest.

Mr. Yin said that one thing he remembers clearly about what happened on Sep. 26th, was that he saw a couple of colleagues put away their Facebook badge when they are close to the vigil event. "I completely understand why they did that, but I felt very sad at that moment. I think if only one peron speaks out while revealing his or her identity as a Facebook colleague, Mr. Chen would have been relieved in the nether world."

Mr. Wang, who asked for a two-hour leave to participate in the memorial service, told PingWest that "We definitely respect the departed’s privacy, but at the same time we also care about making sure that the workplace environment and culture inside Silicon Valley’s big names match what they claim in public." 

The fact that Facebook at the time did not reveal more details made Mr. Wang feel that the company is trying to hide the ugly truth. He hopes that Facebook would do an open and fair investigation and release the truth to the public.

Ms. Huang, who also attended the vigil and spoke to a few media outlets, said that she was resentful of the indifferent attitude Facebook displayed. "My appeal today is that we can speak out more for Mr. Chen."

Ms. Zhang, an elderly citizen told PingWest that her husband and American-born daughter both faced unfair treatment at work. "Chinese should not fight alone. We should not simply work hard and think everything is ok when our interests are being harmed and our rights violated. Chinese (referring to both migrant workers and Chinese Americans) need to band together and protect our interests."

Even after his termination, Mr. Yin still thinks it was a great honor to have received an offer from and workd at Facebook. He had ten years’ working experience in China, and was relying on his OPT to work at Facebook. He got competing offers from other companies prior to accepting Facebook’s offer in June 2019, resulting in his own manager at Facebook helping him apply for a more competitive package, which he did not manage to enjoy for long.

While Yi joked that he had no backup plan and is now seeking new opportunities, connect requests is flooding his LinkedIn account. Besides meeting with his lawyer to discuss future plans regarding the termination, he is also writing a song about his experience during the past weeks and hoping to present it at a local Spring Festival Gala for Chinese tech workers.

"One simply cannot fear Facebook more than god." He told PingWest.