WSJ US BusinessTikTok’s Work Culture: Anxiety, Secrecy and Relentless Pressure

May 6, 20220
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With a seemingly bottomless feed of goof-offs, dance-offs and good-natured pranks, TikTok bills itself as the happiest place on the internet.

Fueling its success: an exacting management style and demanding internal culture that belie its buoyant public image, say employees at its U.S. offices.

The employees, many of them veterans of other major tech companies, say TikTok emphasizes relentless productivity and secrecy to a degree uncommon in the industry.

As TikTok continues its torrid growth, those conditions are increasingly a source of tension at U.S. offices of the app, a unit of Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. Founded just six years ago, TikTok recorded the most downloads of any app through the first quarter of 2022, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok’s U.S. operation had about 1,500 employees as of mid-2020, and TikTok said last year it would like to increase that figure to 10,000. Much of their work involves converting products developed in China for an American audience and tapping the rich U.S. advertising market, representing one of the boldest experiments in bridging the work cultures of the world’s two tech superpowers.

In Los Angeles, the base of TikTok’s U.S. operation, some employees complain of sleep deprivation exacerbated by frequent work on weekends and mandatory meetings with colleagues on the other side of the globe.

Several former U.S. employees said they averaged 85 hours of meetings a week during their time at TikTok, and had to carve out additional time to complete their work. Another said he persuaded his boss to spare him from working back-to-back all-nighters only after he shared medical lab results showing a potentially life-threatening condition.

Former employees described weight fluctuation, stress or emotional lows so severe they sought therapy. One said she felt such pressure to be present during back-to-back meetings at TikTok that she bled through her pants rather than excuse herself to get a tampon.

TikTok borrows some of its approach from Amazon.com Inc., which is also known for its demanding work culture. TikTok executives regularly tell employees “It’s always day one,” repeating a line popularized by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to encourage innovation and avoid complacency. Other maxims, such as “Be candid & clear,” are splashed across TikTok office walls, and employees are judged in part based on their adherence to the concepts.

TikTok said it has made a number of adjustments to its practices and work culture to reach its goal of “building and fostering a team that is empowered to support our growing global community.” In a written statement, it added: “We encourage a culture of transparency and feedback, and are committed to building an equitable platform and business that allows both our community and our employees to thrive.”

TikTok’s main U.S. offices are in Los Angeles.

Photo: Jessica Pons for The Wall Street Journal

Long hours and tight deadlines are hardly novel at fast-growing tech companies like this, nor is a skewed sleep cycle rare for employees of foreign firms. But TikTok’s U.S. workforce embodies such stresses to an unusual degree, said several people who have worked both there and elsewhere in tech.

Former employees have taken to social media sites such as YouTube and Medium to recount their experiences at TikTok’s U.S. offices. Some describe an emotional high from being in an intense atmosphere. Many others list the challenges, including interpreting internal documents that are written in Chinese and translated with software that doesn’t always capture the subtleties.

“Working at TikTok stretched me in more ways than I could count, and taught me more about product strategy, execution, and cross-cultural nuances than I could have initially imagined,” wrote Melody Chu, a former senior product manager who worked on helping creators make money from their content, in a post on Medium. Even so, Ms. Chu, who has described herself as a veteran of Facebook, Roblox and Nextdoor, left TikTok in November.

She said she spent so many dinnertimes on calls with colleagues in China rather than with her husband that they sought marriage therapy. Her weight dropped precipitously and she had trouble sleeping, she wrote. All interests, including time with her parents and her own mental health, took a back seat to TikTok.

“If I knew that working at TikTok would cost me this much, I would never have taken the job” in June 2020, she wrote. Yet on reflection she didn’t regret having joined, she added, because by doing so she proved to herself that she has what it takes to succeed. Ms. Chu didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Former TikTok employee Pabel Martinez said he was told not to share certain data with lower-level employees. “The signal that I received was: ‘We don’t trust you,’ ” he said.

Photo: Elias Williams for The Wall Street Journal

Many TikTok employees tolerate the hours and lack of work-life boundaries because of the prospect of a payout if its parent company goes public. “You want to be on that rocket ship,” said Pabel Martinez, who was a global account director for ad sales at TikTok until February.

Mr. Martinez said he left after he objected to having to work all weekend even though his project was on schedule, and the response he received from a manager was: “That’s not how we do business here.”

ByteDance put plans to go public on hold about a year ago when Chinese regulators urged it to focus instead on data security.

TikTok’s revenue reached about $4 billion in 2021 and is projected to be as much as $12 billion this year, according to a person familiar with its business operations. By contrast, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., didn’t take in $12 billion until its 10th year.

TikTok frequently has multiple teams working on the same project, pitting them against one another to see who can finish it fastest, according to former workers. The tactic is meant to push employees to work as fast as possible, but some ex-employees said it fueled paranoia about falling behind colleagues, or frustration when their projects never saw the light of day.

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Last year, Singapore-based Shou Zi Chew became TikTok’s chief executive, replacing an interim CEO, Vanessa Pappas, who now works out of Los Angeles as TikTok’s chief operating officer. U.S. employees say the move further anchored TikTok’s power base in the East. American Kevin Mayer was TikTok’s CEO in early 2020 but left after about three months, at a time when the Trump administration was trying to force a sale of the app to an American company.

TikTok doesn’t make an organization chart available to employees and bars them from creating and sharing their own. It’s a policy common among Chinese companies that want to deter competitors from poaching. Some ex-employees say they were told that a chart wasn’t necessary because TikTok has a flat structure where anyone can contact anybody.

The result can be to leave people confused about whom to contact on other teams or about who is sending them messages. For months, some former employees said, members of the human resources and finance teams in the New York office didn’t know there were separate teams performing the same functions in California.

Jamie Lim Yin Yin, a former employee in Singapore, said when she got emails from colleagues, she had to look them up on LinkedIn to figure out what team they were on.

“Let’s just say LinkedIn was a tab on my browser that was constantly open,” she said in a YouTube video about why she left in December after just four months.

A TikTok spokeswoman said there is a way for employees to look up worker profiles.

Mr. Martinez, the former ad-sales account director, said presentations at TikTok frequently included blurred or missing numbers, and his managers instructed him not to share certain data with lower-level employees.

“The signal that I received was: ‘We don’t trust you,’ ” he said. “There’s a level of secrecy at TikTok that was very different” from other tech companies where he had worked.

“Knowing that the majority of the company is awake when I am supposed to be sleeping gives me so much anxiety at night,” former TikTok employee Chloe Shih said in a video.

Photo: Jessica Pons for The Wall Street Journal

TikTok attracts plenty of applicants eager to work there, yet it appears to grapple with high attrition. Lucas Ou-Yang, a former TikTok engineering team manager in Mountain View, Calif., wrote in a thread on Twitter that the pressure to keep up with Chinese colleagues and work on their schedules led all 10 of the product managers he worked with to quit about a year into the job.

In November, after a unit in the engineering department hosted an all-hands meeting to discuss a flood of U.S. departures, executives agreed to a new policy of trying to hold meetings in English if not all participants speak Chinese. While the company offers translation options, some former employees said they felt they missed too much nuance when meetings weren’t in a language they understood.

Last year, the Chinese government told employers that a work schedule at some Chinese tech firms of 9-9-6, meaning 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 6 days a week, wasn’t legal. ByteDance said it would adopt a “1075” standard: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week. Many employees say the longer hours remain the expectation.

Some former U.S. employees of TikTok said that to attend virtual meetings with managers in Beijing, they often had to begin their workweek on Sunday afternoon, which is Monday morning in China.

“I actually think I developed a sleep disorder from working so late into the evenings,” Chloe Shih, a former employee in California, said in a YouTube video. “Knowing that the majority of the company is awake when I am supposed to be sleeping gives me so much anxiety at night.”

Questions about work-life balance came up at nearly every all-hands meeting, former employees said.

TikTok offices in L.A.

Photo: Jessica Pons for The Wall Street Journal

In mid-2021, some U.S. managers started encouraging employees to silence notifications on their internal messaging tool after hours to reduce the number of late-night requests they had to field. Some suggested that employees block off their calendars to allow time to recharge. Former employers said higher-ups ignored the calendar notes and scheduled meetings during those times anyway.

“While meetings often span time zones, as is typical for global companies, we continue to focus on ways to provide employees support and flexibility,” said the TikTok spokeswoman. She added that TikTok encourages workers to use personal time off, schedules no-meeting times and discourages off-hours messaging.

Competition is more extreme in China’s tech sector than in the U.S., said Xuezhao Lan, founder and managing partner of Basis Set Ventures, a venture-capital firm. “Obviously no one wants to have to be working until 2 a.m.,” but if employees don’t put in long hours, they don’t survive, she said. “That’s the context that’s missing when people try to understand Chinese culture.”

TikTok used to send many new American hires to Beijing for a week to see China’s work culture up close and learn ByteDance’s ways. The pandemic stopped the visits. ByteDance operates many other apps and services, including Douyin, a version of TikTok that is for China.

Many tech startups give new employees restricted stock units, or RSUs, to entice them to accept less salary for a chance at a big payout if the firm goes public. TikTok didn’t begin offering RSUs to a majority of U.S. employees as part of hiring and bonus packages until the summer of 2020. When it did, it didn’t extend the awards to most existing U.S. employees, creating what some said was confusion and frustration.

TikTok began letting some employees convert their bonuses into RSUs that would vest immediately. The perk was available to employees who got high marks in two consecutive performance evaluations, said former employees.

They said those evaluations were based in part on whether employees were deemed to be following the maxims on workplace walls, known as Byte Styles. Many felt that maxims such as “Aim for the highest” and “Be grounded & courageous” were so vague they allowed managers to simply reward employees they liked. Others said that fear of running afoul of one Byte Style—“Be open and humble”—made people wary of speaking out.

At meetings, TikTok managers in the U.S. skipped over questions submitted about RSUs, according to former employees.

At a town hall meeting in April 2021, Dylan Juhnke, who worked on brand partnerships at the app for more than two years, asked the head of U.S. human resources why senior leaders dodged questions about compensation for 50 weeks in a row, according to people familiar with the exchange.

Mr. Martinez left TikTok in February and now does a podcast on workplace matters called “¿Quién Tú Eres?”

Photo: Elias Williams for The Wall Street Journal

He said that if TikTok wasn’t planning to provide answers to such questions, it should say so instead of deflecting them.

Not long after, senior leaders reprimanded Mr. Juhnke by email for his behavior at the town hall, a copy of the email shows. Human resources launched an investigation and discussed whether TikTok could fire him, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Juhnke resigned a couple of months later.

TikTok didn’t comment on accounts of specific employee experiences, including that one.

TikTok describes itself as a home for “joyful, entertaining, diverse and unexpected experiences.” In a memo posted internally when he left, Mr. Juhnke said: “The way TikTok employees are being treated is the exact opposite of what the TikTok platform stands for.”

Write to Georgia Wells at georgia.wells+1@wsj.com, Yoree Koh at yoree.koh@wsj.com and Salvador Rodriguez at salvador.rodriguez@wsj.com

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