Former Facebook software engineer Yi Yin didn’t expect to lose his job when he picked up the microphone during a protest last month at the entrance of the social media giant’s headquarters in Menlo Park.
Yin was one of nearly 400 protesters who gathered in front of Facebook’s iconic “Like” sign on September 26, criticizing the company’s silence towards an employee’s death and requesting a fair investigation. Police called the death of Qin Chen, 38, an apparent suicide. However, many protesters believed Chen, who jumped off the fourth floor of a Facebook campus building on September 19, might have experienced workplace bullying.
“Give me the truth, Zuckerberg,” Yin chanted, waving his hand to the crowd. Dozens of protestors repeated after him, “Chinese life matters, Zuckerberg!”
Yin was the only Facebook employee who agreed to speak to the media. The 37-year-old engineer from China, who joined the company two months ago, neither knew nor worked with Chen before but said he could understand the pressure and stress of working for Facebook. Shortly after the protest, videos of Yin being interviewed by San Francisco-based ABC7 News went viral on Chinese social media Weibo, receiving hundreds of millions of clicks.
Yin told the Peninsula Press that Facebook fired him for what it called, “lack of judgment.”
“Facebook did not fire Yin Yi for participating in the protest or talking about the death of Qin Chen,” said Pamela Austin, a spokeswoman of Facebook, in an email to Peninsula Press. “That said, Facebook expects all of our employees to treat one another with respect, particularly when dealing with sensitive issues. We won’t hesitate to take action to make sure all of our people feel safe and comfortable at work.”
When asked to respond to Yin’s assertion that Facebook told him he was being fired for “lack of judgment,” Austin said: “We do not comment on HR matters.”
Potential legal actions
To Yin, Facebook’s decision is “pure retaliation” and he’s talking to lawyers to evaluate potential legal actions.
“This is against my freedom of speech,” said Yin. “I did the right thing.”
While the firing shocked and angered Yin’s supporters, including many in China who learned about the matter on social media and accused Facebook of suppressing free speech, a legal expert says it would be difficult for Yin to sue Facebook under the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause.
According to David Snyder, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues, the First Amendment only prohibits the government from punishing people for certain types of expression, but it doesn’t apply to private companies.
“The First Amendment doesn’t play any role there,” said Snyder. “He [Yin] might have a claim under employment law or he might have a contract claim but he wouldn’t have a First Amendment claim.”
Meanwhile, Facebook and Sanford Heisler Sharp, a law firm representing Chen’s family, are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Chen’s death. Ella Zheng, one of the family’s attorneys, said it’s still too early to draw any conclusion.
“We have met Facebook attorneys and representatives and will continue the conversation,” Zheng said in a phone interview. “There seems to be conflicting information, so we are still working on the investigation.”
An increasingly tension-filled relationship
The September 26 rally — one of the biggest protests in the region by local Chinese residents – and the later online fury back in China illustrate the increasingly tension-filled relationship between Facebook and its foreign employees.
The company’s stack ranking performance review system, which requires managers to evaluate employees based on peer reviews twice a year, gives managers too much power, according to several current and former Facebook employees who spoke to Peninsula Press but asked not to be identified by name. Such
performance reviews – which cannot be challenged — are particularly stressful for foreign employees, who rely on Facebook to sponsor their work visas.
“If you are laid off, you must find a new job within 60 days before you have to leave the U.S.,” said a Chinese Facebook engineer, who just received a performance review that he considered “extremely unfair.”
“We can’t afford to be fired now because as foreign employees, we are worried about the green card and bank loans,” he added. “We just have to find our own ways to swallow the stress.”
A former Chinese software engineer, who worked at Facebook between 2014 and 2017, but was fearful to speak on the record, said he encountered an unfair “meet most” performance review from his manager — a low grade that puts future employment at risk — after a three-month paternity leave.
“My manager said my coding had design defects,” the former employee told Peninsula Press. “That made no sense because he wasn’t capable of understanding even one line of the coding I did.”
Such a performance review made it impossible for him to be promoted to a higher rank. The Chinese engineer immediately started to look for a new job.
“It [The performance review system] has resulted in a stressful and unfair working environment,” he said. “I found no solution but to leave.”
Address the stress in Silicon Valley
Stress — along with anxiety, depression and relationship problems — rank among the top reasons that people in the Bay Area have reached out for mental health support, according to Susan Wyatt, director of customer success at Lyra Health, a digital behavioral health company that works with numerous tech companies including Facebook.
“The tech industry is an exciting and fast-paced place but it can also be kind of a pressure cooker,” said Wyatt. “Long hours, demanding deadlines, the sense of always needing to be connected to work, the need to be on call 24/7… all of those things combined can really quickly add up to stress and burnout, which are some common issues that we see from the tech employees who are reaching out to Lyra for support.”
Tech giants like Facebook are ahead of the curve when it comes to the benefits that they offer to their employees regarding emotional health, but there is still a lot of work to be done, according to Wyatt.
“There are still many tech workers who don’t have great access to care,” she added. “You know, under a traditional health plan, the average wait time to see a mental health care provider can be up to 25 days.”
Yin said he isn’t concerned about looking for a new job. Showing a reporter his iPhone, Yin noted that he had hundreds of LinkedIn notifications.
“There have been more than 600 people adding me on LinkedIn today and saying they can refer me to new jobs,” said Yin, pointing at the app. “This is why I don’t regret [speaking out].”