In China, Workplace Sexual Harassment Under the Spotlight

August 13, 2021

A female employee's recent allegation of sexual assault at Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba sparked a massive online reaction and government scrutiny of the company, marking a trend of employees in corporate China challenging workplace discrimination and harassment via online tools, putting employers on notice.

In the Alibaba case, the company held its CHRO accountable for neglect, terminated the supervisors involved, and promised to implement an internal “anti-harassment” policy.  The quick reaction reflects an increasing intolerance of sexual violence and discrimination against women in China.  Weibo (a Chinese site similar to Twitter) was a primary platform for voicing workplace concerns and violations, as it often has been due to a lack of proper internal employee voice channels.  

Chinese government sends mixed messages:  China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the government’s anti-corruption agency, said, "In the [Alibaba] incident, an unhealthy dynamic in a working environment, a disgusting drinking culture, and lack of transparency when reporting issues together exposed pervasive, deeply rooted unspoken rules."  Instead of condemning sexual harassment, the agency has focused on the drinking culture.  Additionally, in a case where an intern sued a celebrity TV host for harassing her, court hearings have been delayed, signaling continued challenges in seeking justice in sexual harassment cases. 

Outlook:  It is not clear whether the government will impose more regulations on workplace sexual harassment.  However, global companies operating in China should review their company policies regarding sexual harassment and anti-corruption, ensure such claims can be investigated and addressed in a timely manner, and promote a harassment-free and respectful work environment for women.