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WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION

Fired TikTok workers allege racist insult by bosses in civil rights complaint

Signage at the ByteDance offices in Singapore, on Friday, 4 August 2023. (Photo: Ore Huiying / Bloomberg)

TikTok’s parent company was accused of racism and retaliation by Black former employees in a complaint to US civil rights enforcers alleging ByteDance terminated them because they spoke up against discrimination.

A woman who worked in sales for the company says she was forced to pursue low-quality leads rather than the more promising ones she had developed herself, and that several supervisors including a vice president referred to her as a “black snake”. A man who was on TikTok’s advertising team said he was wrongly assigned a lower level and salary than White co-workers with equivalent credentials, and denied credit for his own accomplishments and ideas.

The complaint they filed Thursday with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, comes as technology companies have faced years of criticism over slowness to improve their hiring and treatment of women and underrepresented minorities. It’s also a tense time for China-based ByteDance amid a proliferation of efforts to ban TikTok across the US over concerns it could allow the Chinese government to obtain data on Americans without their knowledge.

“We take employee concerns very seriously, and have strong policies in place that prohibit discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement. “As an organisation, we have a strong record of championing diversity and inclusion.”

Ex-ByteDance employees Nnete Matima and Joël Carter said in the EEOC complaint that their experience facing reprisals for calling out prejudice “is emblematic of a systemic problem in Silicon Valley and more generally in large American companies”.

“This case demonstrates the dilemma that way too many workers of color face today,” they said. “They can ignore discrimination and let biased supervisors sabotage their careers, or they can report that discrimination and suffer retaliation that often leads to being terminated.”

In 2020, following concerns about visibility voiced by Black TikTok creators, the company issued a pledge “to work each and every day to create a supportive environment for the Black community and everyone across the world”. The social media company said at the time, “We stand with the Black community and are proud to provide a platform where #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd generate powerful and important content with over 1 billion views.”

In their complaint, Matima and Carter say they had been heartened by TikTok’s public commitments, but found a different reality after joining the company themselves. Carter was a manager on TikTok’s ad policy team. Matima worked selling ByteDance’s workplace collaboration tool Lark.

Both workers say they were the only Black employees in their roles for the majority of their time there, and that they after they filed internal complaints, management “refused to adequately investigate their claims and turned their fury” on them instead, ultimately firing them. The company’s behavior shows that it “has no tolerance for dissent within its ranks,” according to the filing.

“We know that discrimination is rampant in America, but when workers complain about discrimination, companies say, ‘Can’t be us,’” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a lawyer for Matima and Carter. “The responsible way for corporate leaders to respond to discrimination complaints is to take them seriously, not engage in a witch hunt against the people that made the complaint.”

Complaints filed with the EEOC are investigated by its staff, after which the agency can dismiss the claims, try to forge a settlement, sue the accused company, or just green-light the plaintiffs to file a lawsuit of their own.

“I did everything in terms of filing complaints, reporting things going up the chain of command — I did everything I possibly could do, but found that the more I spoke up for myself, the worse I was treated,” Matima said in an interview. “I want them to understand that the way they treat people of color is not right, and that we’re not just going to take it.”

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