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.