Source Code: What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning

×

Microsoft is among the companies in the running to buy TikTok.

Photo illustration: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
TikTok logo against the American flag
Power

These TikTok employees really love where they work. Now what?

TikTok's U.S. employees bought into a very distinct type of corporate culture. Now, they could be swallowed up by a very distinctly different one.

When Nikki Bogopolskaya joined TikTok's marketing department in May, the company looked like one of the few bright spots in perhaps the darkest economic period in U.S. history. By that point, tens of millions of Americans had filed for unemployment since March, but TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance, was only growing. As the app's popularity in the U.S. exploded, buoyed by legions of people ordered to stay at home with not much else to do, the company tripled its U.S. staff and snagged a top Disney executive — Kevin Mayer — to be its new CEO.

Sign up for Protocol newsletters

Bogopolskaya started the same day as Mayer from the comfort of her remote office in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the company made sure she had all the office supplies she needed to get started.

But the summer saw TikTok become a political punching bag between world superpowers, with India banning the app, the House of Representatives voting to bar it on federal workers' phones, and the president of the United States running alarmist campaign ads claiming, "TikTok is spying on you."

But even by late July, Bogopolskaya was unshaken. She really, really loved her job, and she wanted me to know it. "I wanted to go on record saying, as an employee here, even given everything that's going on in the world, I'm really confident in the company and our leadership, especially our community and our creators who continue to stand behind us every day," she said.

She described a radically transparent work culture, where every bit of news — even the bad stuff — is communicated to employees before making it into the press and where top executives, including Mayer himself, hold weekly town halls to allay staffers' concerns. There, they celebrate wins, discuss what's trending on TikTok, and answer anonymously submitted questions from staff.

Bogopolskaya wasn't alone in feeling this way. In late July, during what seemed then like the height of TikTok's diplomatic troubles, four other current TikTok employees unanimously and emphatically echoed Bogopolskaya's praise to Protocol.

"It's the first company I've worked for that I feel comfortable being my authentic self," said Tiffany Hopkins, an account manager who previously worked at LinkedIn. "I truly believe our leadership is working in earnest to create both an inclusive workplace and product."

Another TikTok employee who previously worked for a giant tech company and asked to remain anonymous, put it more simply: "Truly, I'm not just saying this because I'm talking to a reporter: It's the best job I've ever had."

Now, as Microsoft — and, potentially, other tech giants — look to acquire TikTok and thwart President Trump's threats to shut the app down in September, the question is not just what the deal would mean for Microsoft, U.S.-China relations, and the TikTok app itself, but the more than 1,400 U.S. TikTok employees who bought into a very distinct type of corporate culture and may now be swallowed up by a very distinctly different one.

In interviews with Protocol in late July, the TikTok employees enthusiastically doted on the company, often mirroring each other in their responses. Two of them noted TikTok's commitment to hiring 10,000 people in the United States over the next three years as evidence of its bright future. Three others offered variations of the company's mission statement — to "inspire creativity and bring joy" — to explain why they love their jobs.

"TikTok has the power and authenticity to inspire real joy and creativity, which is what our world needs right now," said one creative strategist who joined the company in June.

"I also genuinely believe in TikTok's mission to spark creativity and bring joy," Hopkins said.

The employees' responses were so similar, Protocol asked if they'd been given talking points before speaking with the press. None had, and only Bogopolskaya said she'd even told the communications department about the interview. TikTok's head of corporate communications, Josh Gartner, said he was unaware any employees had spoken with Protocol.

"What has made TikTok so successful is it is, in fact, an extremely unique, innovative and fast-moving culture," Gartner said. "Any direction the company goes, we absolutely want to keep that in place, because that's what makes TikTok TikTok."

The staffers spoke effusively about being inspired by TikTok creators. "Seeing creators get off-platform opportunities is one of the coolest things," said one of the employees, referring to entertainment industry contracts TikTok creators have recently landed. "That's really been happening a lot recently, and we're only going to see it more as time goes on."

And they said the hardest part of working at TikTok is fielding questions from friends and family about how hard it must be to work at TikTok. "I think people believe the external pressure we're all working under is causing a crazy amount of stress," that employee said in July. "Internally, we're moving forward with business as usual."

Bogopolskaya said throughout the summer, advertising clients' interest hadn't waned, and while some have asked her about TikTok's relationship with China, she said she reiterates what she told me: "We store all our U.S. data in the U.S., and we do not share it with the Chinese government. We haven't been asked to do so, and we wouldn't share it if we were asked to do so."

Several employees expressed gratitude for the fact that they often hear about new controversies — like the House vote on TikTok — from the company first, rather than in the news. "I don't feel like we're ever blindsided," said the employee who worked at another tech giant. "I've worked for big corporations that have not been so transparent."

Microsoft, of course, is not known for its transparency, nor for its happy-go-lucky corporate culture. The last few years have seen waves of employee revolts over the company's military contracts, its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and, more recently, its deals with police departments.

In 2018, when Microsoft acquired the software development platform Github, the company appointed Microsoft Vice President Nat Friedman to replace Github co-founder Chris Wanstrath as CEO. After Friedman defended the company's ongoing contract with ICE in 2019, several employees resigned in protest.

TikTok was not always so beloved by its staff, either. Last year, former employees told The Washington Post they'd been forced to censor content according to the restrictive rules of their Chinese parent company. But TikTok has changed dramatically since then, both in terms of its U.S. footprint and its popularity. And recently, the company has made changes designed to address concerns about censorship. In a blog post published the same day as the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple were set to testify before Congress, Mayer wrote that TikTok was launching a new transparency center, where people can see TikTok's moderation policies and review the algorithms that drive them.

All of the staffers Protocol spoke with were hired in 2020, and none expressed concerns over censorship or fears for their privacy. Still, after Microsoft announced its interest in acquiring TikTok last week, the employees who spoke so enthusiastically with Protocol in late July did go quiet, declining to speak again to discuss whether they thought an acquisition might change the company they love — or whether it already has. Only Bogopolskaya even replied, saying, "All my statements around remaining extremely confident in TikTok and our leadership navigating us through this remain accurate."

Gartner, for one, said the company has continued to see an influx of potential job candidates, as TikTok continues its hiring surge, even amid uncertainty.

The Microsoft acquisition is not a foregone conclusion. In a blog post this week, Microsoft said it is "committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury."

"These discussions are preliminary, and there can be no assurance that a transaction which involves Microsoft will proceed," the post read. "We do not intend to provide further updates until there is a definitive outcome to our discussions."

If the deal fails, President Trump has said he would force TikTok to shut down by Sept. 15, though it's not clear exactly how.

Despite their optimism, the TikTok employees weren't naive to the challenges their uber-popular young company faces, even before the acquisition talks began. As Bogopolskaya put it in July, "In the current economy we're in, I think for anybody to not have a concern about job security would be a little shortsighted … but I would say I'm not any more worried than anyone else would be right now."

Latest Stories