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'Do Not Discuss the Incident,' Facebook Told Employee Fired After Speaking About Worker Suicide

"I really wanted the Chinese engineers to stand up and speak for ourselves," Yi Yin, who was fired after demanding answers about the suicide, said.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Oct 21 2019, 4:25pm

Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Yi Yin, a Facebook engineer who was fired days after speaking to the media about an employee who killed himself, says that he wanted to stand up for Chinese engineers at the company who feel silenced because of their precarious visa status.

“Most Chinese workers are on H-1B visas, and don’t want to make any trouble. But I am a troublemaker,” Yin told Motherboard. “I really wanted the Chinese engineers to stand up and speak for ourselves.”

In late September, Yin, who worked for Facebook's push notifications team, agreed to speak on the record to a local ABC station at a protest over Facebook’s handling of the suicide of Qin Chen, who jumped off the fourth story of an office building at Facebook’s Menlo Park, California campus on September 19.

Chen’s suicide raised concerns among Facebook employees and the Chinese community about the working conditions of Silicon Valley tech workers on visas. Since Chen’s suicide, former and current Facebook employees have started posting online about the mistreatment of international workers at the company. Meanwhile, the Chinese community in Silicon Valley responded to the company’s handling of Chen’s death by organizing a protest and memorial for Chen at Facebook’s headquarters on September 26.

A GoFundMe fundraiser called “Say NO To Toxic Work Environment” raised over $6,000 for the events. Since then, a second GoFundMe page has raised over $122,000 for Chen’s wife and child, who are reportedly in the United States on H4 visas.

At the protest, Yin led a large crowd of employees and non-employees near a giant “thumbs up” sign on the company’s Menlo Park campus, chanting “Chinese Lives Matter, Zuckerberg” and “Give Us the Truth Zuckerberg.” Roughly 400 Facebook employees and non-employees attended the protest, according to a Bloomberg report. A video of Yin leading chants went viral in China.

“Facebook was very unhappy with me,” Yin told Motherboard about his decision to speak to the media. “I just thought someone should push the company to give us the truth. We wanted a fair and transparent investigation. We want to know what happened between Mr. Chen and his manager before his suicide.” Yin said he doesn’t have proof, but believes rumors that Chen was bullied by his manager at Facebook and given an unfair performance review.

The day after the protest, in an email reviewed by Motherboard, a Facebook human resources manager wrote to Yin, referencing his interview with ABC, “To respect the privacy of the employee and his family please do not discuss the incident with anyone especially outside the company” and suggested that he contact Lyra, the company’s psychological health service. Days later, Yin received a “final” warning, which he says did not mention any violations of Facebook rules.

On October 7, Facebook informed Yin that he had been fired, that he has to pay back a sign-on bonus, and that the company would no longer pay for a trip home to China. “The team clarified that you will not be receiving a flight home check. Regarding the sign on bonus, we will require that you pay back a prorated portion,” an HR representative wrote. "I also want to remind you of the obligations that you agreed to when you signed the Confidential Information and Invention Assignment Agreement, which is attached for your reference."

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Facebook told CNBC that Yin wasn't fired for speaking about Chen's suicide, but the emails reviewed by Motherboard clearly show he was instructed not to speak about the incident.

“This employee was not fired for joining a protest or talking about the recent tragedy on our campus. He was here for a matter of weeks, and showed poor judgement in a string of policy violations. We won’t stand for our employees intimidating one another,” Facebook told CNBC. “We won’t get into the specifics of confidential, internal conversations.”

"I've been formally fired, and return to freedom"

Since being fired, outrage over Facebook’s treatment of Yin has gone viral in China and among the Chinese diaspora in the United States. A discussion of Yin’s firing on the Chinese site Zhihu has been viewed over 1.6 million times, according to Bloomberg, after discussions of Yin spread to WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app.

Even prior to his firing, in a public post on his LinkedIn account that received more than 10,000 likes, Yin wrote in Mandarin, “After participating in the protest, taking a personal interview, and asking the company to announce the truth of the matter, I'm still ok. The pressure is kind of a lot. I received a final warning letter, and plan to display it, add a frame, and hang it on the bedroom wall.”

Days later, he updated the post, adding, “I've been formally fired, and return to freedom." Yin, who is originally from Beijing and received his master’s in games and playable media at UC Santa Cruz in 2017, said that he only has two months to find a new job before his visa expires.

Since 2017, as part of his promise to “hire American,” the Trump administration has been denying record numbers of H-1B visas—those offered to high skilled workers with bachelor’s and advanced degrees, including many engineers at Facebook, Amazon, and Google. In the three years that Trump has been in office, the denial rate for H-1B visas has risen from 10 to 24 percent. The United States issues roughly 85,000 new H-1B visas each year. In 2018, 651 of those visas were granted to Facebook employees, the seventeenth most of any employer in the country.

Yin did not know Chen personally, but said that hearing of Chen’s suicide reminded him of his own story.

Both were born in mainland China in the 1980s, where they began their careers, then migrated to California to attend graduate school, and had grappled with being migrant tech workers during a period of rising tension between the United States and China, and hostility from the U.S. federal government toward immigrants. What happened to Chen “could happen to me,” Yin told Motherboard.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.