'Built on fear' | TikTok's brand power is luring talent, but 'toxic' culture could be forcing them out

TikTok's brand power is luring talent, but 'toxic' culture could be forcing them out

Toxic atmosphere, burnout and a culture “built on fear” is causing huge rifts between TikTok’s owners and its UK workforce, according to new reports.

The Financial Times (FT) has reported that trouble is brewing at the London offices of the social media behemoth, which launched the UK arm of its e-commerce platform TikTok shop in October 2021. Reports have suggested that half of the original workforce which launched the venture have left the company in the months since.

“There are people leaving every week, it is like a game every Monday we ask who has been fired, who has quit,” one current employee told the FT.

And as one employee implied, the bad atmosphere and high demands show no sign of ending, because the company has a long list of hopefuls – desperate to add TikTok to their CV – lined up to replace any dissenters.

But what exactly are some of the issues that have allegedly irked TikTok’s employees?

Joshua Ma, the head of the company’s e-commerce division across Europe, hit headlines for the wrong reasons this week, allegedly telling staff that as a “capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” firms should offer maternity leave. His comments are now under investigation by the firm, during which time he will “take some time off” and “step back” from his current UK-based role.

Other factors included an apparent culture of burnout and glorifying heavy workloads. The FT stated that “images of employees working into the early hours of the morning were celebrated in internal communications as examples of ‘commitment’, while a handover in which an employee said they would work during their holiday was shared as an example of good practice.”

TikTok said employees sometimes have to work flexible hours that “match customer use patterns” but that this was an “exception, rather than the norm”.

Other allegations included staff being demoted for taking time off sick with stress.

A former employee told the FT: “The culture is really toxic. Relationships there are built on fear, not co-operation.

“They don’t care about burnout because it is such a big company, they can just replace you. They coast on the TikTok brand.”

A Spokesperson for TikTok 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 programmes to support and celebrate professional development and achievements.”

Toxic cultures

Research conducted by Culture Shift in 2021 found that two-thirds (61%) of people who’ve experienced a toxic workplace have ended up taking long-term leave.

1,000 people from sectors including the financial, healthcare, legal, insurance and public sectors were quizzed about the workplace culture in their organisation and whether they’d experienced negative behaviour.

What the research from Culture Shift demonstrated is the detrimental effect a toxic workplace can have on employees – and how prevalent it still is. A worrying 44% of those surveyed said they’d experienced problematic workplace behaviour such as bullying or harassment. In addition to the two-thirds (61%) who’ve ended up taking long term leave as a result of negative behaviour, 42% of respondents said they’d left a workplace permanently because of a toxic culture.


General workforces are dangerously close to burning out, for several reasons. The mental and physical strain of the pandemic has had a profound impact on the workforce, many of whom have had their health impacted by the virus, or lost friends and family members.

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And, of course, the volatility brought about due to the pandemic, the ‘Great Resignation’ and current financial instability means that many workers simply have bigger workloads than they did before. In fact, research conducted by the remote team-building firm Wildgoose found that a massive 44% of UK employees reported being expected to do more work over the last year, with those at mid-sized firms most likely to have an increased workload.

Overall, it’s safe to say that the workforce as a collective is teetering on the edge of disaster. Perhaps most shocking are the statistics published by Indeed at the tail end of 2021, which concluded that more than half (52%) of UK workers are perpetually experiencing burnout. This is a huge amount of the workforce, and significantly up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.

The bottom line

It may well be that TikTok has been banking on its brand power as an insurance policy – confident that any employees who can’t, or won’t, put up with excessive pressures, can be quickly and easily replaced by someone else willing to burn themselves out.

But ultimately the clock is ticking on the longevity of this approach. The world has progressed from a ‘stay in the office until the boss leaves’ mentality, and with the talent crisis continuing to sweep the globe, not only will TikTok might soon find not only that the strongest talent is rendered unable to work due to their own wellbeing issues, but that there aren’t people lining up to take their place anymore.

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