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2 Black TikTok workers claim discrimination: Both were fired after complaining to HR

TikTok is facing allegations of discrimination and retaliation by two of its former employees.
Drew Angerer
/
Getty Images
TikTok is facing allegations of discrimination and retaliation by two of its former employees.

About a year into her sales job at TikTok, Nnete Matima had what she describes as her first-ever panic attack. It happened right after she got off the New York subway and saw TikTok's office building, where she worked. She says she started having heart palpitations.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'if you keep coming to this place, it's going to kill you,'" she says.

Matima says she was under severe stress at TikTok — she was given heavier workloads, excluded from meetings and found out her supervisors called her names behind her back. Matima says she filed a complaint with human resources, but the company disregarded her claims and her managers retaliated. When she filed a second complaint, she was fired.

Matima has now taken her case to the U.S. government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC. She and another Black employee, Joel Carter, who had a similar experience at another TikTok office, filed a class action charge against the company on Thursday.

Matima and Carter allege TikTok has a practice of downplaying complaints of racial discrimination and then retaliates against people who speak out. They say this has a chilling effect on other employees from coming forward.

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, says it has a record of championing diversity and inclusion.

"We take employee concerns very seriously, and have strong policies in place that prohibit discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace," Michael Hughes, a TikTok spokesperson, wrote in an email.

The tech sector has long had an issue with race discrimination. Many top tech companies have faced criticism for mistreatment of Black employees, including Google, Facebook, Pinterest and more.

A 2022 survey by Dice, a jobs website for tech workers, found that 24% of tech professionals said they experienced racial discrimination at work, and that number jumped to 53 % for Black professionals.

Meanwhile, Black employees represent a small portion of workers at tech companies. According to a 2023 report by McKinsey & Company, Black employees represent 12% of the U.S. workforce, but only 8% of tech.

"Mistreated in the workplace"

When Matima started working for TikTok in July 2022, she was the only Black employee among about 40 employees on the North American sales team, according to the charge filed with the EEOC . She says her managers started treating her differently during the first week of work.

"I came in so optimistic, you know, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, thinking this was a place where I would launch my career and just soar," says Matima, who worked as a lawyer before joining TikTok.

But almost immediately she noticed her managers were overly patronizing and gave her heavier workloads than her white colleagues — requiring her to shoulder 75% of the sales outreach for the smaller four-person team she worked on, according to the EEOC charge.

"It's this balancing act of I don't want to read too much into anything," she says. "However, every angle I look at it from, it doesn't look good, it doesn't feel good. Something is happening."

It just got worse from there. Matima says she was given inferior assignments than her white peers with her managers reassigning the valuable sales leads she'd cultivated and transferring her "junk leads." She was also excluded from meetings and conferences.

She eventually learned that her manager and other supervisors called a racist epithet behind her back — a colleague told Matima they commonly referred to her as a "black snake."

Matima filed two separate discrimination complaints with human resources asking to be transferred to another department. Each time, the company said it found no wrongdoing and Matima was forced to stay where she was and, she says, the mistreatment continued.

"It's like you against the world in these situations, you're mocked and you're ridiculed," she says. "It brings you to a very dark place."

The other TikTok worker, Carter, was based at the company's Austin, TX., office. He was hired as a risk analyst in 2021. He says his first year was good and he got promoted to a policy manager role. It was in this new position, however, that he started experiencing much of what Matima went through.

Carter says the new manager treated him worse than his white counterparts and he was excluded from meetings. He says he was portrayed as "angry" and "tense" and falsely accused of "slamming doors." Carter went to human resources and said he was facing racial discrimination and asked to be transferred to another department.

As with Matima, the company responded by determining there had been no race discrimination.

In a message to human resources, Carter wrote that the characterization of him as angry and tense "perpetuates a historic false-narrative about people of color, especially Black people, when we claim to be mistreated in the workplace" and "dismisses the courage it took to raise these concerns."

In both Carter and Matima's cases, the complaints with human resources led to more retaliation. TikTok ended up firing both employees in August.

Not an isolated incident

This isn't the first time TikTok has been accused of discrimination. In May 2020, Black TikTok creators protested against the company, claiming their videos were being censored on the platform. TikTok denied the allegations.

But, just weeks later, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter exploded across social media, TikTok admitted to a "technical glitch" in the system.

In a blog post, TikTok apologized to its "Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed." Adding that, "we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Black community and, as we write this, our teams are working on ways to elevate and support Black voices and causes."

Matima and Carter are the first known TikTok employees to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC. But Black tech workers at several other major companies have filed such complaints or allege being fired for speaking out against discrimination.

At Google, Timnit Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher, said she was fired in 2020 after criticizing the company for not hiring enough people of color and not working diligently to erase bias in A.I. And at Pinterest, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two Black women on the public policy team, said they too faced discrimination and retaliation at that company in 2020.

Facebook has seen dozens of employees allege racial discrimination. In 2018, a former employee, Mark Luckie, wrote amemo accusing the company of "failing its Black employees and its Black users." And, in 2020, several employees filed a charge with the EEOC alleging the social network doesn't give Black workers equal opportunities in their careers.

"In my experience, when people of color speak out, even internally, about their concerns, they become dead to the company," says Peter Romer-Friedman, a labor lawyer who's representing Matima and Carter. "It's not just tech. It's not just big business. It happens all across America."

The EEOC charge against TikTok is the first step toward a potential class action lawsuit. The agency will then investigate the claims. If it finds that TikTok did discriminate, the company could settle. Or Matima, Carter and any additional complainants can take their claims to court.

Matima says she doesn't want future TikTok employees to go through what she did.

"It's a real structural and systemic problem here and it needs to be addressed," she says. "I don't want anyone else to come after me and experience the same thing and ultimately have their spirit broken."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.

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