Chinese Facebook Engineer Commits Suicide: Is a Job Worth Dying For?

protest against Facebook suicide case (source: leikeji)

When Chinese internet workers are complaining about the 996 working schedule in the tech giants in China, horrible things are also happening to tech workers across the Pacific Ocean.

On September 19, a Chinese engineer from Facebook jumped off the fourth floor of Facebook’s headquarters on Jefferson Drive, in Menlo Park.

The 38-year old named Chen Qin was a graduate from Zhejiang University, one of China’s best universities, and attended a two-year Computer Science program at the University of Southern California. He was a top student and kept hopping jobs every two years until he ended up in one of the world’s top tech firms Facebook. Before he died, he had worked there for one year and eight months.

Like many other Chinese tech workers in Silicon Valley, Chen was the pillar of his family, responsible for the heavy expenses of living in America, which contributes to the pressure of working in a high-paying company like Facebook. His family told the media that it was not unusual for him to stay up until midnight for a project and then resume work the next morning.

Judging by his presence on social media, Chen was not a nerdy straight-A student. He loved climbing, hiking, skiing and other outdoor sports. His Facebook profile photo is one of himself enjoying mountain climbing, in which he seems rather delighted and relaxed. His Facebook updates stopped as of March 5, 2018, which coincides with his first day at Facebook.

“Done is better than perfect” has been Facebook’s motto over the years, with an underlying results-orientated mentality. Though it is unfair to relate this suicide case directly to corporate culture, it has everything to do with stressful and unfair workplace treatment. According to Chen’s coworkers, the day before Chen’s death, during the department meetings, the director scolded Chen for the procrastination of his project. Somebody heard the director say “get out”, and Chen argued back “it’s unfair”.

In Silicon Valley, employees who don’t show competitive working results are enlisted in the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). As the name implies, PIP seems to bear the goal of elevating employees’ performances. However, the truth is that anyone that fails to pass the PIP will likely be fired. According to an article on Forbes entitled The Truth About ‘Performance Improvement Plans’, “when your boss gets mad at you and puts you on a Performance Improvement Plan, the last thing on his or her mind is improving your performance. Instead of a Performance Improvement Plan, it should be called This is the First Step Toward Firing You Plan, because that is what’s happening.”

On September 23, Patrick Shyu, Youtube blogger and a Japanese engineer that previously worked at both Facebook and Google exposed some of the details in a video called “Facebook Employee Suicide Cover-up”.

From the information in an internal Facebook group, “It is clear that Facebook leadership wants to push this suicide case under the rug.” In the video, Shyu explained further from the information he gathered from insiders that Chen was actually betrayed by his manager at the advertising group, who convinced him to stay on this team until the end of the quarter, and promised to give him a good performance rating for this quarter before he could transfer to another team. In the end, the manager failed to keep his promise and gave him a “Meets Most” rating, which is known internally as the worst rating realistically handed out to employees, thus blocking him from transferring to other teams. And if this turns out to be true, then it could be defined as serious workplace bullying.

After this tragedy broke out, Facebook issued a public notice, saying they have confirmed that one of the employees has passed away. Other than that, the leadership at Facebook seems to be more concerned about silencing other employees. Yi Yin, a Chinese Tsinghua graduate and a senior software engineer at Facebook, was dismissed from the company on October 7 due to “lack of judgement”, but more accurately due to his active participation in a protest of Facebook’s toxic work environment that contributed to Chen’s death. On the site of the protest, Yin was waving his work card excitedly and making statements in front of everyone.

Yi wrote on LinkedIn with an almost cheerful tone, “Thank you all for your concern. I’m alright after the protest, the interviews and asking the company to disclose the truth. I’ve been under a little pressure here. I received a final warning letter (from the company), planned to have it mounted and framed, and hung on the bedroom wall. Update: I have been officially fired and have now returned to freedom.”

Under the LinkedIn post there are tons of replies concerning job offers and recommendations from tech companies like Alibaba and NetEase. It seems that there are so many better ways of dealing with unfair treatment than death. Apart from workplace bullying and the pressure that comes with an H-1B visa, Chen may have been suffering from depression or other mental health issues. Unfortunately, it is probably too late to find out.