One of TikTok’s senior-most female executives, Katie Ellen Puris, is suing TikTok and its owner ByteDance, alleging wrongful termination based on age and sex discrimination.
In her complaint filed Thursday, Puris accused ByteDance chairman Lidong Zhang of aggressively forcing her out of the company because she “lacked the docility and meekness specifically required of female employees.” She also alleged experiencing retaliation after reporting sexual harassment to the company.
Puris joined TikTok in December 2019 as managing director and US head of business marketing. Previously, she’d led global marketing initiatives for Google and Facebook. TikTok appeared to value this experience and promoted her within two months to lead its global business marketing team. In this role, she launched TikTok for Business and meaningfully shaped how businesses interact with the platform.
Amid this success, Puris allegedly discovered that she had a target on her back.
According to her complaint, by early 2021, Beijing-based ByteDance executives, including Zhang, “began reasserting more control over TikTok’s day-to-day operations.” These executives, Puris said, required bi-monthly meetings with senior executives to report on their teams’ progress in hitting company targets.
“Despite its attempts to appear independent, TikTok’s day-to-day management and business decisions came directly from ByteDance’s top-level management in China,” Puris’ complaint alleged.
During one of these bi-monthly meetings, Puris met Zhang for the first time during a presentation where she “celebrated her team’s successes and achievements.” Allegedly, Zhang was put off by Puris’ presentation because “women should always remain humble and express modesty.”
“Essentially, Lidong Zhang believes women should be quiet,” Puris’ complaint alleged.
Puris believes that because she “did not fit that stereotypical gender mold,” Zhang refused to ever meet with her again and placed her on a “kill list” of employees who he wanted terminated.
According to Puris, Zhang began pressuring her supervisors to review her performance negatively. He allegedly cast a wide net and sought negative comments from employees whom Puris rarely worked with. His alleged “animosity” was so evident that one of Puris’ supervisors allegedly sought to protect her by removing her from Zhang’s oversight.
At the same time, Puris, who was approaching 50, alleged that other executives “made it clear” that they would prefer to hire “hungry” younger, less experienced workers “believed to be more innovative and pliable” and “desperate for approval” than older workers like Puris. She claimed that a supervisor regularly referenced her age during performance reviews that became increasingly negative and without clear feedback or comments substantiating her poor reviews. Requests for feedback were repeatedly rejected.
Puris’ efforts to report alleged age and sex discrimination did not result in corrective action, her complaint said. Even when a TikTok advertising partner allegedly drunkenly sexually harassed her at an off-site event, Puris alleged that her complaints were not taken seriously. Puris said that TikTok continued inviting the advertising partner to events, causing her to withdraw from attending.
Rather than sincerely investigate her complaints, Puris’ complaint said that “after Ms. Puris made protected complaints, her team was substantially reduced, she received a devastatingly low-performance review, she was denied her annual bonus, she was moved out of her position, and she was ultimately unlawfully terminated.”