TikTok accused of mishandling sexual harassment allegations
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TikTok has been accused of mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against a senior manager in London, highlighting longstanding concerns about the working culture at the fast-growing social media platform.
Steve Ware, former head of TikTok’s UK ecommerce studio operations, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances to young female staff members and clients, including influencers who create content on the app, according to four women who worked with him at TikTok.
Ware has told the Financial Times that all allegations against him are “false”.
The issues related to Ware follow previous claims about failures to address formal HR complaints against senior staff and concerns about the working culture at the short-form video app owned by China’s ByteDance.
The FT reported last year that Joshua Ma, who had been leading TikTok’s European ecommerce team, told staff at a dinner that “as a capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” in maternity leave. Ma stepped down from his role following the revelation but remains at the company.
One woman, whom we call Sarah to protect her identity, outlined a series of distressing encounters with her boss, Ware, in late 2021 and early 2022. The FT has reviewed messages between Sarah and Ware, her communications with TikTok, as well as with friends that corroborate aspects of her story.
Sarah said the behaviour included being repeatedly propositioned by Ware in the office, at work events, over messages sent outside work hours, and two instances of inappropriate touching. Sarah said she felt unsafe and trapped in rooms alone with him, where he once tried to kiss her and on another occasion threatened to “slap her arse”.
In early 2022, Sarah raised the issue with Ware’s manager, Patrick Nommensen, who placed her on immediate paid suspension as the company investigated the complaint.
Nommensen asked Sarah to only log on to internal systems to contact him or the company’s ethics officer about the investigation, according to an internal message reviewed by the FT. Sarah said she submitted about 30 screenshots of communications and a list of five people who could support her account to the investigation.
Ware had resigned from TikTok and left the company in September 2022 before the probe concluded.
TikTok’s investigation upheld the allegation that Ware had made inappropriate comments and messages that fell short of its code of conduct on harassment, according to a letter seen by the FT. However, TikTok added that it found these instances occurred before Sarah and Ware were involved in a “consensual romantic relationship”.
Sarah denies ever having a consensual relationship with Ware and said she was shocked and upset by the outcome. TikTok failed to provide her with any evidence of such a relationship, she added. Ware did not respond to requests for comment on whether it was his position that he had been in a consensual relationship with Sarah.
After the outcome of the investigation, Sarah’s fixed-term employment contract was terminated with a month’s notice. “They realised he had left, and it did not reflect badly on TikTok anymore,” she added. “I was left waiting for six months without any outcome . . . I did not get any justice.
“I was scared of losing my job if I said something . . . and [that is what happened] in the end,” she added.
TikTok said Sarah had been hired on a fixed-term consultancy contract that had been due to expire during the investigation. Her employment was extended beyond this date, and when the probe concluded, her contract was brought to an end, it added.
“As soon as this complaint was made, we launched a thorough investigation, including interviewing 10 different witnesses to determine facts. We are confident we took appropriate steps in response,” TikTok said.
Others interviewed by the FT also complained of misconduct by Ware. Two of these women said they shared their personal experiences with TikTok’s ethics officer in relation to the company’s investigation into Ware.
One woman employed by an external company that worked with TikTok said Ware asked her for oral sex in an office and, in another instance, said he wanted to “rip her clothes off”.
In other incidents, corroborated by two women, Ware discussed the sexual act of “teabagging” with young female employees and, separately, asked about their sex lives.
The issues related to Ware come as TikTok rapidly expands its staff base as the company seeks to challenge social media rivals such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Five former employees in total told the FT they experienced or personally witnessed sexual harassment at the organisation in its UK and European offices. The UK and Europe are considered TikTok’s largest markets after the US, accounting for more than $800mn of its revenue in 2021.
One of these people said they lodged a complaint about the manager of a content moderation hub who removed his T-shirt twice in business meetings so he was bare-chested. This person added the same manager suggested that women’s clothes were too revealing, and made comments about the sex lives of more junior colleagues he managed.
The employee said an investigation never concluded as she and a HR executive dealing with the issue left shortly after the complaint was made. The manager remains employed by TikTok in a different role. TikTok said it had determined that the manager removed his T-shirt on one occasion and has now opened an internal investigation into the matter after the FT raised the issue.
Two former employees also said they were regularly expected to share apartments with the opposite sex while travelling for work, which they believed perpetuated a culture of unwanted sexual communication.
“Harassment of any kind in our workplace is completely unacceptable and will be met with the strongest form of disciplinary action possible,” TikTok said. “We’re fully confident in the rigour of our process for surfacing, investigating and taking action on any and all complaints of this nature.”
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