By Josh Horwitz and Brenda Goh
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Richard Liu, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com Inc, has weighed in on an ongoing debate about the Chinese tech industry's grueling overtime work culture, lamenting that years of growth had increased the number of "slackers" in his firm who are not his "brothers."
Liu's comments, which Chinese media said were posted on his personal WeChat feed on Friday, are the latest contribution to a growing discussion about work-life balance in the tech industry as the sector slows after years of breakneck growth.
They also come amid reports this week that the company is in the throes of widespread layoffs. Three company sources told Reuters that cuts began earlier this year and had become more extensive in recent weeks.
A JD.com spokesman confirmed the authenticity of Liu's note. He declined to comment on layoffs but said some adjustments were happening as a normal part of business.
"JD.com is a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work, which is consistent with our entrepreneurial roots," the spokesman said. "We're getting back to those roots as we seek, develop and reward staff who share the same hunger and values."
Liu, who started the company that would become JD.com in 1998, in the note spoke about how in the firm's earliest days he would set his alarm clock to wake him up every two hours to ensure he could offer his customers 24-hour service - a step he said was crucial to JD's success.
"JD in the last four, five years has not made any eliminations, so the number of staff has expanded rapidly, the number of people giving orders has grown and grown, while the those who are working have fallen," Liu wrote. "Instead, the number of slackers has rapidly grown!"
"If this carries on, JD will have no hope! And the company will only be heartlessly kicked out of the market! Slackers are not my brothers!" he added
The term he used, which is commonly translated in China as "slackers" can be directly translated as people who drift along aimlessly or waste time.
The contents of his note were reported by major Chinese media outlets such as financial magazine Caijing and the 21st Century Herald newspaper on Saturday as well as widely shared on Twitter-like platform Weibo, where it was read more than 400 million times.
CUTS AND SLOWDOWN
Three JD employees, who declined to be named as they were not permitted to speak to the media, told Reuters that morale at the company was low after several senior executive departures and layoffs across the firm in recent weeks. One said the cuts also affected vice-president level staff.
Tech website The Information reported this week that JD.com could cut up to 8 percent of its workforce. JD, which had more than 178,000 full-time employees at the end of last year, said the figure was incorrect.
"Now is kind of an inflection point, where too many people and too many business leaders or department leaders have been laid off. No one is safe," one of the sources said.
He added that it had affected productivity in his department and that many workers checked Weibo, the stock markets or played games rather than focus on work.
The layoffs "are pretty much all JD employees can talk about," he said.
The JD spokesman, when asked about morale, said most of the team was highly committed.
"Change - while uncomfortable for some - can be encouraging for most, who are dedicated to our shared future."
JD, which is backed by Walmart Inc, Alphabet Inc's Google and China's Tencent Holdings, in February posted its lowest quarterly revenue growth rate since its 2015 initial public offering.
Other Chinese tech giants have lowered growth forecasts and cut staff bonuses amid the slowdown, which has driven calls for better work conditions for its workers.
The '996' work schedule, which refers to a 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. workday, six days a week, has in particular become the target of online debate and protests on some coding platforms, where workers have swapped examples of excessive overtime demands at some firms.
Alibaba Group founder and billionaire Jack Ma also weighed in on Friday, telling the company's employees in a speech that the opportunity to work such hours was a "blessing".
Liu said JD did not force its staff to work the "996" or even a "995" overtime schedule.
"But every person must have the desire to push oneself to the limit!" he said.
(Additional Reporting by Cate Cadell and Zhang Min in BEIJING; Editing by Gerry Doyle)