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2022-05-24 10:05:27

Zhihu, China’s largest online Q&A platform, used “violent layoff” tactics to fire employees by calling them late at night and over weekends, blocking their work emails and other accounts, forcing them to sign resignation agreements, and preventing them from seeking higher compensation, according to four employees who were let go and spoke with Sixth Tone.

Xiao Ming, who used a pseudonym for privacy reasons, said the company’s human resource manager delivered the news via a video call Sunday afternoon. Xiao was offered a severance package — a one-month additional salary, corresponding to the number of years he was employed there — and told the layoffs were “purely because of the epidemic and the general environment.”

“The company has completely deteriorated, becoming a capitalist that exploits to fill its wallet,” Xiao said. “Zhihu owes all laid-off employees an apology.”

The employees Sixth Tone spoke with estimated that the current round of layoffs, which started in the beginning of April, affected about 20% of the company’s workforce across almost all business lines. Zhihu employs over 1,000 people, according to business data platform Tianyancha.

Zhihu didn’t comment on the layoffs or directly respond to the accusations from its former employees. A company spokesperson told Sixth Tone on Monday that the “corresponding situation is a normal business and organizational optimization adjustment.”

Founded in 2010 by former journalist Yuan Zhou, Zhihu had won a reputation as a source for quality answers, drawing on a large user base made up of people interested in social justice topics. However, a large number of well-known columnists have left the platform in recent years, blaming the company’s aggressive expansion and monetization strategies.

The reported layoffs at Zhihu mirror the current state of the country’s tech industry, which has been battered by continuous regulatory pressure, tough COVID-19 restrictions, and lackluster confidence from overseas investors. Several high-profile tech companies are believed to have laid off tens of thousands of workers since last year, with companies like Tencent, which also finances Zhihu, reporting its slowest revenue growth on record last week.

Those laid off from Zhihu said that dismissals were “coercive.” Xiao was threatened that if they didn’t sign a termination agreement Sunday, the company wouldn’t even offer compensation. But Xiao was offered an additional severance of half a month’s salary if the agreement was signed by 6 p.m. that day.

Wang Min, another laid-off employee from Zhihu who requested to use a pseudonym, said she requested an internal transfer as soon as she received the dismissal notice last week. It was rejected.

“HR ignored my requests and directly froze my account after the call,” she said. “The company kept calling, forcing me to sign.”

With the company disconnecting the dismissed employees from internal communication platforms, many of them are finding each other on various social media platforms. At least 70 laid-off Zhihu employees have formed a chat group on messaging app WeChat, aiming to continue working in the company or seek better compensation.

The group members mainly discuss reporting their former employer to the labor arbitration office and plan to protest at the company’s headquarters in Beijing, once COVID-19 restrictions are eased. All Zhihu staff have been working remotely since May.

Yuan Yayang, a Suzhou-based lawyer specializing in labor disputes, told Sixth Tone that it’s illegal for companies to force employees to sign severance agreements on rest days. Employees also have the right to seek higher compensation by delaying signing the termination contract.

“The employees shouldn’t sign straight away and must strive for the highest possible compensation through multiple negotiations,” Yuan said. “Once an agreement is signed, it has legal effect, no matter if it is signed on a rest day. Of course, if the employee has evidence that the agreement was signed under duress or fraud, they can advocate for the agreement to be rescinded.”

Zhihu employees said that the company has also coerced them into leaving voluntarily. This means the company could save large amounts of money on severance packages.

Yang Zi, another employee who used a pseudonym to speak with Sixth Tone, said that a Zhihu human resources manager forced her to voluntarily quit in the first week of April. She was still a month away from passing her probation period at that time, and was given about 2,000 yuan ($300) as compensation.

“They said they’ll write unfavorable comments on my resignation certificate if I insist on more compensation,” she said. “If the next company does a background check, my supervisor here will also give negative comments.”

Out of fear, Yang resigned voluntarily. The company didn’t even pay her the promised performance-related benefits this month, and she has filed a complaint at a Beijing labor arbitration office.

Meanwhile, Yang and her former colleagues are all currently searching for new jobs. Those Sixth Tone spoke with said they were having difficulties in finding open positions.

“The whole environment is very bad, and there are limited open positions across internet companies,” Xiao said.

“I joined Zhihu out of love,” Wang added. “The company culture puts a lot of emphasis on social responsibility, but judging from this violent layoff, this company has no rationality or legitimacy at all.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: VCG)