Yahoo! Sexual Harassment Suit May Have Deeper Implications

If you are the type who is captivated by Silicon Valley scandals, you are probably aware of the sordid, gruesome story of Google executive Forrest Hayes.  But another one surfaced the other day regarding a sexual harassment suit filed by former Yahoo! software engineer Nan Shi, against her former supervisor, Maria Zhang, and against Yahoo! itself. Needless to say, I don’t know either party (ironically, I first read about the suit on Yahoo!), and nothing I say here should be construed as siding with either of them. But if Shi’s allegations are true–not only about Zhang actions, but even more importantly about the claim that Yahoo! HR ignored Shi’s complaint–then this would be one more disturbing example that many in Silicon Valley are “ethically challenged.”  Zhang holds a position of some prominence in the Valley. And there is another possible aspect of Shi’s claims that is quite troubling.  As usual, the reader comments in the San Jose Mercury News report on the suit were interesting, but one in particular caught my eye:

Very sorry for Ms. Nan Shi. I guess being a woman, immigrant, and having her residency tied to the job in a dominating techno-slavery arrangement with her supervisor is pure evil. Wish you strength and peace in this ongoing lawsuit.

The reader assumes here that Yahoo! had been sponsoring Shi for a green card before they fired her.   [Update, July 15:  This apparently is not the case; see post by “j-lon” below.  The principle, of course, still holds.]  We don’t know this.  It’s quite possible, though.  According to Shi’s LinkedIn page, she left Ohio University (not to be confused with Ohio State University) in 2004.  She worked for Microsoft for five years, then joined Zhang’s startup, which was later acquired by Yahoo!. These days there is a long waiting time for employment-based green card applicants from China, often 10 years or more.  It is possible that Zhang did sponsor Shi for a green card in the startup, with the application now held by Yahoo!, and that Shi’s green card had indeed been hanging in the balance while she worked under Zhang at Yahoo!.  If this were not the case, i.e. if she actually did already have a green card, one would assume she would have left rather than put up with the abuse; her credentials certainly would have opened many other doors for her. Assuming hypothetically that Shi was beholden to Zhang/Yahoo! for her green card sponsorship, this would be an illustration of the enormous power an employer has over a sponsored employee. This problem was noted in the congressionally-commissioned report of the National Research Council, and has been openly pitched to employers by immigration lawyers.  Tech firms want to have “tethered,” i.e. immobile workers, because it’s quite disruptive when a key engineer leaves an urgent project for another firm.  The companies can’t keep U.S. citizens and permanent residents from leaving, but they can tether foreign workers by sponsoring them for green cards, often for many years. Immigration lawyer David Swaim, whose online biography notes that he “created the immigration procedures at dozens of companies such as Texas Instruments…”, states,

By far the most important advantage of [green card sponsorship] is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company for more than four years…

As noted above, for sponsorees from China and India, the waiting time is typically more than six years these days, often as much as 10 years or even more. Though the press coverage of the H-1B work visa tends to focus on the fact that H-1Bs are typically paid less than their market value, for many employers this tethering of the foreign workers is even more important than saving in wage costs. If Shi had been in the midst of a Yahoo!-sponsored green card application process, her claims of sexual harassment by Zhang would, if valid, be a dramatic example of just how much power the employer has over the sponsored worker.

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6 thoughts on “Yahoo! Sexual Harassment Suit May Have Deeper Implications

  1. We tend to leave it to the juries to sort out the sexual harassment and espionage cases (one of the latter caught my eye a while back because it was at a place where I’d worked some time back).

    Didn’t they increase the mobility of H-1Bs being sponsored for green cards a few years back? Something about not having to re-start the green card process with changed sponsor/employer?

    side-note:
    from ehow: “In Fall 2010, Ohio University had record enrollment of about 34K students.”

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2010/11/09/ohio-university-plans-to-boost-enrollment-11.html
    “Campus officials unveiled a plan yesterday to increase the university’s total enrollment by 11% by 2016, to more than 38K students.”

    Seems moderately large in size, to me.

    The former municipal, now state, U of Cincinnati is only a little larger with 300 degree programs and 42K enrolled at multiple campuses, about the same as Indiana U at Bloomington campus.

    I know the California university systems are organized differently, under the notion of 2 huge universities (UC and CSU; or are there more?), with multiple campuses; while many other states have multiple separate universities (2, 5, 6…) in their state university systems. Of course, Ohio State U has adopted the multiple campus model to some extent (57,466 at main 2013 Fall, 63,964 total; 681,223 degrees granted from 1878 through 2013 August), and even MiamiU has a couple mini-campuses.

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    • Those being sponsored for green cards are pretty much stuck. They are allowed to move only at the very last stage of the process. I can point you to the statute if you are interested, but here are more quotes from the prominent immigration lawyer I cited.

      “…[the foreign worker] must commit to a company [typically] for at least five years… The employee must remain with the company throughout the process…Advantages: By far the most important advantage of this process is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company in most cases for more than four years…[green card sponsorship] carries very little liability and creates a
      tremendous opportunity for a long term employment relationship…”

      The vast majority of Silicon Valley firms do sponsor their foreign workers for green cards. So, if Shi did not already have a green card, it’s almost certain that Yahoo! was sponsoring her.

      The H-1Bs who are not being sponsored for green cards often have good mobility, as the process for switching employers was streamlined about 10 years ago. However, some are immobile to various degrees for various reasons, such as the worker’s hope that the employer will sponsor the worker after a year or two of work.

      Thanks for the update on Ohio University’s size. I had no idea it had become that large.

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  2. From the provided url:
    “For example, there seems to be no plan to bring criminal charges against the anti-poaching colluders, even though federal judge Lucy Koh indicated she is still not happy with the proposed settlement for the engineers who experienced lost wages as a result of the secret wage-theft pact.”

    What is illegal, unethical, or immoral about employers agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees? How is this “wage theft?” Should it also be illegal for labor unions to honor each other’s picket lines? How about locals in the same union?

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    • I’m not a lawyer. All I can say is that the judge found that there were serious legal issues in the case with Google and Apple. She also said so for the previous, similar case against Intuit and Pixar, as did the Dept. of Justice.

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  3. A google search for Nan Shi and Ohio University brought up this link:

    http://www.phy.ohiou.edu/announcements/alumni/alumni15/alumnews.html

    It indicated the following:

    “Dale Willits, B.S. 1998, works in the Columbus, Ohio, area and lives with his wife in Gahanna. He was married to Nan Shi on August 19, 2001.”

    A google search for Dale Willits and Nan Shi brought up this link:

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2009/08/08/vitals08_ART_08-08-09_B7_LFENB3A.html

    It indicated that Willits and Shi were divorced in August of 2009 after 8 years of marriage.

    Shi’s LinkedIn page indicates that she worked for AOL in Columbus, Oh before moving to the Seattle area in 2006 to work for MS.

    So provided that Willits was an American citizen (and assuming that Shi was not), it seems at least possible that Shi already had a green card by virtue of their marriage (or perhaps even citizenship).

    This is not to take away from the general point of this blog post, which is a good one. It just may not be relevant to this particular fact pattern.

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    • This is really good Web detective work! Yes, it does seem that Shi was not vulnerable due to green card sponsorship. One wonders, then, why she put up with the abuse by Zhang, if her allegations are correct.

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