Three former senior leaders at TikTok said they were hired to lead departments at the social-media company but ultimately quit after learning they would be beholden to decisions made by the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, according to a new report.
The three departments heads who spoke to Forbes are part of a group of at least five senior leaders who resigned after being asked to take orders from Beijing, according to the report.
“A lot of our guidance came from HQ, and we weren’t necessarily a part of strategy building,” one former leader told the outlet. “I’ve been in this industry for a long time. I don’t want to be told what to do.”
A fourth department head recently exited the company after being instructed to report to ByteDance leadership in Beijing instead of TikTok leadership, another former employee told Forbes.
“Folks are hired in leadership positions in the U.S. and then their scope is reduced in favor of folks in Beijing,” said the employee, who reported to a strategy team based in Beijing.
Leaked internal documents obtained by Gizmodo reveal that TikTok has aimed to “downplay the parent company ByteDance” and “downplay the China connection.”
Twelve former employees told Forbes that ByteDance still exerts significant control over TikTok, with one former TikTok employee showing the outlet a paycheck that lists ByteDance as the check’s drawer.
TikTok’s internal auditor, who does double duty as ByteDance’s internal auditor, told a member of the U.S. Trust & Safety team to build closer relationships with the Beijing office in a recorded call from September 2021, according to the report.
The auditor told the employee they should work with Beijing even for changes “specific to the U.S.” because the Chinese HQ controlled access to the app’s internal tools. He said, “without that bridge, it’s gonna — there could be some kind of constraints. It’s just more difficult to get things done.”
Several employees on product, engineering, and strategy teams at TikTok, including those who handled sensitive U.S. user data, told the outlet they reported directly to ByteDance leadership in China.
TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told Forbes: “TikTok CEO Shou Chew is responsible for TikTok’s product and major strategy decisions…As they would in any other company, TikTok’s product, growth and strategy teams report in to Shou.” Shanahan did not answer a follow-up question about whether engineering teams report to Chew.
The Forbes report comes after Buzzfeed News reported in March that while TikTok has worked since 2020 to move American users’ data to the U.S. amid concerns from U.S. officials that the CCP could potentially access the data, TikTok’s ties to ByteDance could pose a host of other security concerns.
Buzzfeed News said it interviewed more than a dozen current and former TikTok employees who described TikTok and its China-based parent company, ByteDance, as “sometimes so closely entwined” that it is unclear where one stops and the other begins.
Workers told BuzzFeed about some senior leadership decisions being handed down by unknown actors in Beijing, while other employees said their managers made key product decisions after they had “talked to Beijing,” according to the report. Ten of the employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they did not know the identities of the people that their managers, or their managers’ managers, reported to.