On Thursday, a former high-ranking marketing executive at TikTok filed a lawsuit against the social media company and its China-based parent, ByteDance. Katie Puris alleges that she was compelled to leave her position due to complaints she raised about discrimination based on sex, age, and disability. In her complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, Puris contends that her termination in 2022 resulted from a sequence of incidents in which she reported instances of bias, including one involving sexual harassment, to both supervisors and the human resources department.
She says her complaints were met with disdain or ignored. Puris is seeking unspecified damages and a trial by jury.
Her lawsuit alleges that ByteDance chairman Lidong Zhang and other executives determined she lacked the “docility and meekness” they believed was required of female employees. She says she was placed on a so-called employee “kill list” and demoted from her role as the company’s managing director and US head of business marketing in 2019. Her lawyers say she was deprived of crucial career opportunities, left out of important decisions that could impact her team, and suffered health issues such as ulcers, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Puris says she also noticed a lack of women in senior management roles and a focus on hiring younger employees. She claims she told Wendy Jimenez, the then-Head of Global Brand and Creative Organization, that women were being pushed out of leadership positions in reorganizing TikTok’s North American operation and that the emphasis on promoting young talent was discriminatory. She also alleged that she had been the target of sexual harassment at an off-site TikTok event and that the company failed to take action when she reported it.
In addition to gender discrimination, the lawsuit alleges that ByteDance violated laws prohibiting retaliation and unlawfully monitored her communications with her attorney. It says Puris emailed the company’s human resources chief about her concerns about the treatment of women at TikTok, age discrimination, the sexual harassment incident at Cannes Lion, and “the overall culture at TikTok” in the fall of 2022. The suit claims her email was ignored and that she was ultimately fired for reporting the inappropriate behavior.
This is the latest headache for TikTok, which has become the subject of a barrage of criticism from lawmakers concerned about its close ties with the Chinese government and concerns it poses a national security risk. The company has been criticized for collecting data on users and for wanting to store the information in servers in China, where it would be easier for the government to gain access. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress in March to try to ease concerns. Still, it could not convince lawmakers that the company did not give the Chinese government backdoor access to user data.