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.”
China allegedly controls TikTok’s ad business
Puris had hoped that things might change somewhat at TikTok after current CEO Shou Zi Chew took the reins in 2021. However, according to her complaint, the CEO “was not permitted to take over Global Business Solutions”—which controls “all of the advertising dollars generated by TikTok.” Because of this purported division of power, Puris alleged that Zhang remained in control of her area of business.
Supposedly stuck under Zhang’s thumb, Puris alleged that her team was forced to work around the clock. The long hours led some employees to quit, and Puris was not authorized to replace team members who left in the middle of juggling all of TikTok’s “global and regional brand campaigns, including sports and entertainment partnerships, global cultural moments, consumer marketing innovations, and TikTok-owned and sponsored events.”
Despite winning awards for some of these campaigns, Puris’ reviews continued tanking to low ratings that she said were typically reserved for employees who just stop showing up and “considered impossible to recover” from.
Puris’ attorneys, Marjorie Mesidor and Monica Hincken, told Business Insider that “by all metrics,” Puris was “enormously successful at her job and created a successful team.”
“Yet, when she began complaining about the discriminatory treatment she received and the Company’s failure to properly handle her sexual harassment complaint, she swiftly suffered retaliatory consequences that resulted in her unlawful termination,” the lawyers said. “TikTok’s actions against Ms. Puris are illegal and we look forward to vindicating her rights.”
By the time Zhang was fired in 2022, Chinese leadership had taken “even greater control over all marketing efforts,” Puris’ complaint said.
“Kill list” triggers health problems
After allegedly being placed on Zhang’s “kill list,” Puris’ health began declining, her complaint said. “She ultimately required numerous surgical procedures because of ulcers, migraines, IBS, and other health concerns” associated with “the stress and pressure placed on her.”
On September 23, 2022, Puris seemed to reach her breaking point. She sent an email to a supervisor expressing ” concerns about the treatment of women at TikTok, age discrimination,” the sexual harassment that she experienced, and “the overall work environment.”
“Days later,” TikTok fired Puris for “performance reasons.”
Because TikTok allegedly created such a hostile work environment, Puris claimed that she “continues to suffer injury, pain, ailments and conditions, and reputational harm, as well as mental anguish and emotional distress.”
She’s asked the court to permanently restrain TikTok from engaging in age and sex discrimination and assess damages owed at trial, including alleged punitive damages owed.
“As a woman who started her career in 1995, I was taught to be quiet if I wanted to be successful. Gender discrimination and sexual harassment were commonplace, but speaking out was career suicide,” Puris told Business Insider. “Wisdom has taught me that I no longer need to be silenced or afraid to fight for change.”