Inside’toxic’ work culture at TikTok’s QVC-style shopping channel

Joshua Ma, who led the app’s European ecommerce team, will’step back’ after telling shocked UK TikTok staff that as a’capitalist’ he’didn’t believe’ firms should offer maternity leave as more claims about the company’s alleged’toxic’ culture emerged

TikTok’s London staff are quitting or being sacked because of a culture clash with its Chinese owners who are accused of forcing them to work through the night and during holidays –or demoting them if they refuse, whistleblowers claimed today.

More than 20 staff have left the firm’s e-commerce team since it launched TikTok Shop eight months ago, with anonymous current and former workers slamming’toxic’ and stressful working practices in the UK HQ.

The raft of resignations and sackings have been linked to October’s UK launch of the company’s online retail business, branded an anglo-Chinese QVC selling luxury brands on social media.

Two people have reportedly been paid off after complaints over working conditions amid allegations those who failed to hit’unrealistic’ sales targets were singled out and reprimanded on internal message boards. TikTok has said it is investigating.

One former team leader told the Financial Times:’The culture really is toxic. Relationships there are built on fear. They don’t care about burnout because it is such a big company they can just replace you. They coast on the TikTok brand’ ..

Another said:’People are leaving every week. It is like a game: every Monday we ask who has been fired, and who has quit’.

The row came as a senior executive at the tech giant is to’take some time off’after he said he’didn’t believe’ in maternity leave because it conflicts with’capitalism’.

Joshua Ma, a manager with TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance, will step back from his role leading the app’s UK online shopping operation after the comments emerged as part of an investigation into its aggressive work culture.

The row has broken out over how TikTok runs its UK online shop and the treatment of staff

The row has broken out over how TikTok runs its UK online shop and the treatment of staff

TikTok's office in Farringdon, London, which it signed a lease on last year

TikTok’s office in Farringdon, London, which it signed a lease on last year

Whistleblowers inside TikTok’s UK operation have claimed:

  • People are leaving every week-with employees even having a game predicting who has quit and who has been fired;
  • Two employees paid settlements over working conditions, which included long days and working into the night and 12 hour says to accommodate calls with China and user peaks;
  • Several staff are already off sick with stress caused by alleged’toxic culture’;
  • People who fail to hit targets are shamed internally, it is claimed;

Staff at TikTok’s London offices were left outraged after Mr Ma said at an employee dinner that, as a’capitalist’, he’didn’t believe’ companies should offer maternity leave.

What is TikTok QVC-style’online shop?

Social media app TikTok has grown enormously since it was launched in 2017.

The app allows people to post videos between 15 seconds and 10 minutes long, and has become extremely popular, claiming to have more than one billion monthly active users worldwide.

TikTok Shop is an attempt by the app to monetise some of its content.

It hosts livestreams on which it displays adverts for shopping items –much like QVC on broadcast TV.

TikTok approaches companies to host their brands and items on the livestreams, with viewers able to buy these by clicking an orange basket on the stream.

These goods are often sourced from cheap manufacturers and with some being low-cost compared to established brands.

However, the likes of L’Oreal and Charlotte Tilbury, have sold items through the shop.

The firm takes five per cent of the sale price as commission, although it is reported that TikTok sometimes waives this to attract brands to take part.

This has proven very successful in China, with the firm rolling it out to the UK in October last year.

In an email to staff, TikTok said it was investigating the allegations, which it branded’disheartening’.

‘Hopefully, this painful experience will make us a stronger, closer and better team over the long term,’ it said.

Ma’s comments, reported by The FT, came amid a culture clash within TikTok’s London ecommerce team, which reportedly suffered an exodus of staff amid complaints of a toxic company culture that set unrealistic targets and ran counter to standard UK working practices.

Staff said they were frequently expected to work over 12 hours per day, while some team members found themselves removed from client accounts after taking annual leave.

Working into the early hours of the morning or while taking holiday was also celebrated by the company as an example of good practice.

Two employees were also thought to have been paid compensation in relation to working conditions at the firm.

The raft of resignations was linked to the UK launch of TikTok Shop, the company’s online retail business, in October last year.

Products sold through the app include those from brands such as L’Oreal and Lookfantastic, with TikTok often encouraging sellers to offer heavy discounts and’flash sales’ which are often subsidised by the company itself.

Employees complained that TikTok set’unrealistic’ sales targets for the division following the launch in a bid to drum up business.

In an email to staff seen by the Financial Times, TikTok said it was investigating the claims.

In the email, which was titled’Maintaining a positive working culture’, the firm responded to’some disheartening allegations’ about the ecommerce team in the UK.

‘Hopefully, this painful experience will make us a stronger, closer and better team over the long term,’ it said.

It added that’the wellbeing of our team is our top priority’and said staff could contact an anonymous hotline to report breaches of the company’s code of conduct.

Patrick Nommensen, who has worked for ByteDance since the app was launched and led the launch of the ecommerce team in the UK, was named in the email as succeeding Ma, who has’stepped back’ from his role while the investigation takes place.

A spokesperson for TikTok declined to comment on Joshua Ma specifically, but said it is’investigating alleged statements and actions to determine whether there has been a breach of company policies’.

TikTok is one of the world's most popular social media apps, with the firm claiming to have more than a billion active monthly users

TikTok is one of the world’s most popular social media apps, with the firm claiming to have more than a billion active monthly users

It added that it had a clear maternity leave policy, with 30 weeks paid leave.

One of the key reasons given for these issues is an apparent culture clash between working practices in the UK and what the Chinese company expects from its staff.

Whistleblowers told of punishingly long days where they were expected to be in early so they could talk to Chinese colleagues while also sticking around into the evenings as this is when livestreams work best.

They also said the company praised their commitment if staff worked into the early hours of the morning, while someone saying they would work while on holiday was given as an example of something all employees should aspire towards.

A spokesperson for TikTok said:’As with many service businesses, employees in some functions may at times need to work hours that match customer use patterns.

‘We aim to make this the exception rather than the norm, and support our team with flexible working hours, regular no-meeting times, and robust health and wellbeing offerings.’

It also responded to claims from former employees claiming that when they didn’t hit’unrealistic’ targets for sales on livestreams or didn’t answer emails out of hours they would be castigated by bosses.

It said:’TikTok Shop has only been operating in the UK for a few months, and we’re investing rapidly in expanding the resources, structures and process to support a positive employee experience.

‘Examples include a holistic onboarding programme for new joiners; regular employee surveys to solicit and action direct feedback; and dedicated training, mentorship and recognition programs to support and celebrate professional development and achievements.’

The app, which claims to have more than one billion active monthly users worldwide, has proved controversial in the past.

Despite it’s popularity, particularly among younger people, governments in the West have raised concerns about how the data of users is used.

In 2019 the US Army announced it was investigating the app’s links to the Chinese Government, particularly in regard to its policy with data sharing.

It came after national security experts raised concerns about Tiktok’s collection and handling of user data, including user content and communications, IP addresses, location-related data, metadata, and other sensitive personal information.


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