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Nnete Matima said she was drawn to working at TikTok because the social media platform was “really built on black culture” and the work of black creators.
She saw and embraced TikTok’s public show of support for the Black community following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and applied for a job with the company because she felt its company values ”really resonated with me,” Matima told CNN.
However, shortly after she started working at TikTok parent company ByteDance last year, she claims she encountered “toxicity and racism” in the workplace. Matima claims her manager would call her a “black snake” behind her back and place unrealistic and unequal expectations on her compared to her white colleagues. The abuse only got worse, she said, after she spoke about it through human resources channels.
Matima is one of two Black former ByteDance employees who jointly filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Thursday. Her complaint asks the agency to investigate alleged racial discrimination and retaliation against Black workers at the social media giant.
American companies have long been under fire for racism in the workplace, particularly in the wake of racial discrimination that swept the country in 2020. The criticism is particularly aimed at technology companies, where it is particularly important to have employees with different perspectives because of the technology products. They have been confronted with accusations of perpetuating racial and ethnic discrimination.
Matima, who is based in New York City, and his former employee Joël Carter, who is based in Austin, Texas, alleged in the proposed class action lawsuit that they each repeatedly faced discrimination in the workplace and then faced retaliation. if they had expressed concerns about it.
“Instead of holding anyone accountable, TikTok denied the blatant discrimination Ms. Matima and Mr. Carter suffered, failed to prevent it from continuing, conducted sham ‘investigations’ into their complaints, took their jobs away, and then fired Ms. Matima .” and Mr. Carter in retaliation for complaining about racial discrimination and mistreatment,” the complaint states.
“We request that the EEOC investigate TikTok’s pattern or practice of retaliation against employees who complain of discrimination,” the complaint continues.
In a statement to CNN on Thursday, a TikTok spokesperson said: “We take employee concerns very seriously and have strict policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.” As an organization, we have a proven commitment to diversity and inclusion .”
TikTok’s popularity skyrocketed in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and as of this year has more than 150 million American users. As the app has become more entrenched in American culture, it has also come under increasing scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers over perceived security concerns stemming from its China-based parent company’s ties to Beijing. Talk of an outright US ban on the app has been ongoing in Washington, DC since the Trump era, but that has largely died down in recent months as lawmakers turn their attention to the rise of generative AI from Silicon Valley.
Even TikTok itself has acknowledged the important role Black users play on the platform — and the need to support them.
“Black creators are inspiring mainstream culture and continuing to define what’s next – from creating viral moments and carving out new spaces in fashion and music to advocating for others and organizing for a better future, they have always been at the forefront Cutting edge innovation,” the company said in a statement last January.
Two years earlier, TikTok raised concerns that black users felt “unsafe, unsupported or oppressed” and vowed to “actively promote and protect” diversity on the platform.
“Dehumanizing and demoralizing”
Carter, who started at TikTok in June 2021, said in an interview with CNN that the experience at the company was “dehumanizing” and “demoralizing.”
Carter was initially hired as a risk analyst responsible for managing the security of TikTok’s advertising ecosystem, but eight months later was moved to the platform’s ad policy team as a policy manager. Shortly after starting his new role, Carter discovered that he was being significantly underpaid compared to his colleagues. He says he raised these concerns with human resources and his department manager. Carter was the only Black employee on his 80-person ad policy team at the time, the complaint says.
Carter’s manager prevented him from attending important meetings and took credit for Carter’s work, the complaint says. Carter claims that in response to his complaints, his role at the company was “changed and significantly reduced,” leading him to again alert human resources that he was concerned about discrimination and retaliation.
The complaint filed with the EEOC includes portions of Carter’s performance evaluation from April 2022, in which he received an overall rating of “Exceeds Expectations.” One reviewer described Carter as “above all open and humble” and a “great teammate.” He was “happy to provide help or guidance whenever needed. He never had an ego and was always open to collaboration and feedback,” the reviewer added, according to the complaint.
But after Carter began raising concerns about racial discrimination in the workplace, he claimed retaliation against him in a performance review in April 2023.
In that review, he was described as “tense” and “angry” and accused of “slamming doors” in the office, the complaint says. But Carter says he never slammed a door in the office. In fact, he says, the doors in the office were hydraulic and couldn’t even be slammed.
Courtesy of Joël Carter
Joël Carter is one of two black former TikTok employees who have filed a lawsuit against the company, accusing it of racial discrimination and retaliation.
Carter told CNN he felt his managers were trying to “establish this narrative of me being the ‘angry black man.'” Carter became emotional while speaking to CNN about the pain and “the historical significance of the “Using this type of inflammatory language, especially when it is unfounded.”
His work experience had a profound impact on his mental health, and for the first time in his life, he began seeing a psychiatrist and struggled with symptoms of depression for “months,” he said. “It was like an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.”
Matima, who worked in sales for Lark, ByteDance’s workplace communications division, also claims she was treated differently than colleagues on her team, “who were almost exclusively white,” the complaint says. For example, Matima says she was not given enough time to complete the required onboarding courses before she was asked to start work, so she had to complete the courses at night and on weekends. In contrast, Matima’s white colleagues “were given sufficient time during normal working hours to complete their training before they were required to begin sales work,” the complaint says.
In January 2023, the complaint states, Matima was told by a colleague that her supervisor and other colleagues had “generally” referred to her as a “black snake.”
“This outrageous nickname ‘Black Snake’ was not only racially derogatory and inflammatory, but also suggested that Ms. Matima is a deceitful, untrustworthy and deceitful person,” the complaint states.
Matima and Carter both allege that multiple requests for manager changes were rejected and that their complaints to the company’s human resources department were not adequately investigated and addressed.
Both Matima and Carter were ultimately terminated from TikTok in August.
Now Matima says she feels a “moral obligation” to share the experience publicly. “When injustice happens, it stays in the dark and the shadows,” she said. “By going public, we can inspire others who are still suffering there to stand up and speak out.”
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