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8 Jun 2022

Cristina Criddle, Financial Times (UK)

UK: TikTok's aggressive corporate culture triggers London staff exodus

"TikTok Shop’s troubled UK expansion: staff exodus and culture clash", 8 June 2022

A culture clash between TikTok’s Chinese owners and some of its London employees has triggered a staff exodus and complaints about an aggressive corporate ethos that runs counter to typical working practices in the UK.

The friction has centred on the social media company’s ecommerce initiative, TikTok Shop, which launched in the UK in October.

Joshua Ma, a senior executive at China’s ByteDance — owner of the viral video app — and the head of ecommerce at TikTok Europe, outraged London-based staff at a dinner this year when he said that, as a “capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” companies should offer maternity leave.

The episode is emblematic of a broader clash within the ecommerce division. At least 20 members of the London ecommerce team — around half of all its original staff — have left since TikTok Shop’s launch, while others say they are on the brink of quitting. Two employees have been paid settlements over working conditions. [...]

On Wednesday, TikTok sent an email to staff saying Ma had “stepped back” from his role while it conducted a formal investigation into the comment and other claims brought to the company by the Financial Times. The FT spoke to 10 former and current members of the London ecommerce department, talking on condition of anonymity. The company said it had a clear maternity leave policy in the UK, including 30 weeks of paid leave. [...]

Ecommerce team members in London said they were expected to frequently work more than 12 hours a day, starting early to accommodate calls with China and ending late as livestreams were more successful in the evening, with “feedback reports” to be filed immediately after.

Images of employees working into the early hours of the morning were celebrated in internal communications as examples of “commitment”, while a handover in which an employee said they would work during their holiday was shared as an example of good practice.

TikTok said employees sometimes have to work flexible hours that “match customer use patterns” and that it aims to make this the “exception, rather than the norm”.

Several employees went off sick with stress while some staff were removed from client accounts or demoted after taking leave.

“The culture is really toxic. Relationships there are built on fear, not co-operation,” a former London-based team leader said. “They don’t care about burnout because it is such a big company, they can just replace you. They coast on the TikTok brand.” [...]