TikTok employees describe life inside the company as its future hangs in the balance

  • The drama surrounding TikTok has been followed not just by its young users and political pundits but also by the viral video-sharing app's more than 1,500 employees in US. 
  • Business Insider spoke to a handful of employees in recent weeks about how the drama has affected their jobs and how they feel about it, from nonchalance to skepticism.
  • Are you a TikTok employee with insight to share? Contact reporters Paige Leskin at pleskin@businessinsider.com and Dan Whateley at dwhateley@businessinsider.com using a non-work device.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the months-long battle to keep TikTok in the US has seen twists and surprises, employees say they've mostly been left in the dark.

Aside from weekly all-hands meetings with some members of leadership, TikTok employees say they have received little information directly from the company and instead are relying on news reports and Twitter for information. On Sept. 14, the company sent employees the same statement it sent to journalists about its imminent deal with Oracle, Business Insider has learned.

"There's not much internal communication. For a while there was a lot of messaging telling us to brace for a ban but we'll be OK as employees," said one employee, who like the others who spoke to Business Insider, did so on condition of anonymity. "It seems like nobody knows much, though. I think it gives a sense our leadership isn't in control of the situation."

A TikTok spokesperson told Business Insider that the company regularly holds town halls and provides team updates, and that it has "been direct with employees that our discussions with the government and multiple public companies require confidentiality, so we can't always share as openly as we would otherwise like to."

The drama that's developed over recent months, from President Donald Trump's threatened ban to a forced sale and failed Microsoft acquisition, has been closely followed by the company's more than 1,500 US employees. Business Insider spoke to a handful of those employees in recent weeks about how the drama has affected their jobs and how they feel about it, from skepticism to nonchalance to vulnerability and confusion.

Aside from concerns about information on the company's future, some employees say that the culture internally has shifted.

Some TikTok employees who are ethnically Asian said they felt vulnerable as public discourse around a ban or forced sale has veered into anti-China talking points with nationalist undertones. One employees said they felt uncomfortable as colleagues celebrated a potential shift away from China.

"There hasn't been much messaging and support of the geopolitical themes that might be affecting us or any kind of acknowledgment that we support our Asian employees," the employee said, adding that some employees had expressed joy around "Oh, we're not going to be owned by China anymore." 

In a statement to Business Insider, a TikTok spokesperson said: "TikTok prides itself on its diverse and inclusive workforce, and it causes us great pain that at times the recent tenor of the conversation in the US toward TikTok has made some of our employees, particularly those of Asian descent, feel targeted. While we have not previously heard the type of comments that Business Insider has described inside the company, we take the claims extremely seriously and will continue to focus on making TikTok an inclusive place to work."

Internally, there's also been some surprise and skepticism over Oracle's last-minute presence in the deal with TikTok.

"I want to work at ByteDance because of its global reach and its innovative technology," an employee said. "We don't know the details of the Oracle deal yet, but it sounds like a focus on Anglo-Saxon markets in partnership with an enterprise company with no experience either with consumer products or the relevant technology. I'll keep an open mind, but that's not the opportunity I left my prior job to take on."

The current proposed deal would break off TikTok's global business into a new US-based company, in which Oracle, Walmart and US investors would have substantial stakes. However, there's still disagreement over whether the deal would give majority ownership to US investors, or whether TikTok's China-based parent company ByteDance would maintain its majority ownership.

TikTok's future in the US is safe — for now. A federal judge approved an injunction over the weekend to block the first part of the US government's ban on TikTok that was set to take effect Sunday night. However, TikTok will again have to defend itself ahead of November 12, the deadline set for a complete ban to be implemented.

While it's common for people to feel job insecurity when their company is in sales talks, the duration of the TikTok drama has had a stabilizing effect for some.

One employee said that they had grown accustomed to the lack of certainty in TikTok's status in the US. Another said that the months of conflicting reports and fervent rumors has desensitized TikTok's workforce from consistently worrying about the future of their jobs.

But although day to day operations haven't changed, TikTok's interim head Vanessa Pappas says the company's ability to grow has. In documents recently submitted to a federal court, Pappas said TikTok's battle with the US government has caused more than 50 candidates to turn down roles at TikTok — a company that appears to still be rapidly growing.

 

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