TikTok employees complain of ‘kill list’ aimed at forcing out London staff

TikTok created what staff described as a “kill list” of colleagues that the company wanted to force out of its London office, in moves that some employees said created a working culture of fear at the fast-growing social media group.

Several workers in the ecommerce department in London were named on the list, identified as people who the leaders of the viral video app, owned by China’s ByteDance, wanted to fire or end the contracts of, according to four people at the company with knowledge of the procedures.

One person with direct knowledge of the company’s human resources processes described it as a “manage off” list that had at least a dozen names on it. In some cases, replacements were hired while people on the list were still in their role. Some of those targeted had only been in the positions for a couple of weeks, they added.

Others said they felt that leaders had created a hostile work environment to encourage named staff to resign, leading some employees to refer to it as a “kill list”.

“You are made to question what is wrong about you,” said one current employee, saying she had been singled out by leaders regularly and verbally reprimanded.

TikTok said it was unable to find any list that matched this description and that “any such list, terminology or purpose would not be condoned or in accordance with our internal policies on probation and performance management,” the company said.

The episode is emblematic of an apparent clash of working cultures in TikTok’s London ecommerce team, one of its main bases outside Asia and at the heart of its global expansion. ByteDance raised $5bn in December 2020 at a $180bn valuation, making it among the world’s most valuable privately held companies.

The group’s China-based leadership has spread its aggressive corporate ethos to offices worldwide, seeking to constantly reshape operations in order to maintain its enormous growth and further challenge social media rivals such as Facebook.

However, some of its methods seem at odds with British staff’s expectations of greater job security and work-life balance. 

A Financial Times investigation in June revealed dozens of workers had left TikTok’s London office since the beginning of this year, with some reporting working 12 hours a day or being demoted after taking leave. Joshua Ma, the ByteDance executive in charge of its ecommerce expansion in Europe, stepped down after the FT revealed he had told London-based employees he “didn’t believe” in maternity leave.

The investigation into Ma’s comments concluded several weeks ago and the recommended disciplinary actions had been taken, TikTok said. Ma is still at the company in a new undisclosed role, and two employees said they were surprised to see him in virtual meetings, as they hadn’t been provided with an update on the investigation.

The company is undertaking a global restructuring process, hiring and firing employees in the UK and Europe, according to people familiar with the operations. TikTok said it frequently made structural adjustments to “strengthen the organisation and better align its teams with company goals”.

Some complaints raised with the HR department about the treatment of London workers had been ignored and several employees took mental health leave because of the work environment, more than ten current and former employees said. 

Staff named on the so-called “kill list” would have their roles changed, to tasks they were not experienced or trained in, multiple employees said.

“If they don’t like you, they gaslight you or make your job untenable, [they] take away your work,” said another recent former employee. Seven other employees told the FT they had similar experiences.

TikTok said it encouraged staff to share feedback with leaders or in an anonymous internal messaging channel. “We have a thorough process for investigating concerns raised to ensure we’re creating a positive and supportive working environment,” the company said.

It added: “This is not behaviour we would condone, and we have robust systems and standards in place to ensure fair, objective probation review and performance management processes. We would never endorse any process which sought to unfairly target or undermine specific employees.”

In a recent internal update on near-term goals, ByteDance chief executive Liang Rubo said he wanted to “dramatically downsize” hiring plans for the year, while slowing organisational growth and increasing efficiency, according to a person who reviewed the notice.

Still, TikTok is hiring nearly 5,000 positions globally, including nearly 600 in the UK and Ireland, 200 in Europe and more than 2,000 in the US, according to an FT analysis of its job vacancies.

Headcount is being reduced in Beijing and expanded in the US, in a bid to separate TikTok from its Chinese parent under increasing pressure from the US government, which has argued that the app is a security concern, according to multiple people close to the company.

Revenue growth at ByteDance’s China business — including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok — has slowed to about 20 per cent year on year as the business nears maturity and China’s economy slows, according to a person close to the company. The person added TikTok, while smaller, was still growing very fast and gushing cash.

Nian Liu contributed reporting from Beijing.

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