Recruiting in the digital age with TikTok
Recruiting in the digital age with TikTok
In this episode, we sit down with Kate Barney—global citizen, entrepreneur, new mom and Head of HR for TikTok’s Global Business Solutions in the United States and EMEA. Hear her perspectives on amplifying corporate culture in a virtual world, combating the Great Resignation and attracting the next generation of talent.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Kate Barney—entrepreneur, Harvard grad, champion of female leadership, new mom and head of HR for TikTok’s global business solutions in the US and EMEA. TikTok was the fastest app in the history of social media to reach a billion user downloads, and it spurred a revolution in self-expression while changing the landscape of music, comedy, activism and so much more. In the last two years, TikTok has gone from 300 to 3,000 employees. I’m so excited to sit down with Kate today and talk about the war for talent, how TikTok is attracting the next generation of professionals and how it’s actually becoming a platform for others to recruit talent. So welcome, Kate.
Kate: Thanks for having me, Heather.
Heather: A special thanks for doing this while on maternity leave, nonetheless. Some might think that you have more time on your hands when you’re on maternity leave; but, in fact, you have less.
Kate: I will say that I have spent a lot of time on TikTok during maternity leave, getting me through the late-night feedings and sleeplessness. There is an amazing tribe of moms on TikTok, so I found a whole new community since going on mat leave.
Heather: That’s fantastic. And it really has been stunning to see how explosive the growth has been and how it’s taking on so many new forms. I think, for many people working at TikTok, it would be the dream job. What attracted you to TikTok?
Kate: It definitely is my dream job. I started my career in China. I studied Mandarin in college and, right after college, I went to Beijing. I had a fellowship at the Beijing Film Academy and lived in China for another 11 years doing startups, working in tech and finance, fashion, pretty much everything… moved back to New York, worked in startups…was in London…and we moved back to New York in 2019 with one-year-old twins. I was looking for a new job, coming off of maternity leave and moving back to the US, and a recruiter from ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, reached out. It was actually a LinkedIn InMail. Always check your InMail, always respond to things, because it is genuine—and there are really great opportunities there. It just sounded too good to be true for me. It was an opportunity to work in a global capacity to support the US and Europe.
I now support global teams throughout Asia and Latin America and Australia. And I work with China, having spent so much time there, I loved the working culture there. I loved the people there. It’s so entrepreneurial…and then to be able to do it in New York and to really build up a company that had already seen pretty good market fit. So, it wasn’t like a small startup. I definitely cut my teeth at lots of small startups that were trying to sell people on the importance of the product, but TikTok had already hit the sticky factor. When I joined, there were only 35 people in the US, and it was really, really fresh. I was excited about the work culture and being on a global team, which truly is global. Every day, I have calls all over the world. And for me also as a new mom, it was really convenient. I might start my day at 5:30 or 6 in the morning with calls to Europe or China and might end at midnight with calls to Australia or Latin America—but I also have a lot of flexibility in the middle of the day, which was really important for me to be able to have dinner with my kids, put them down for bed and spend an hour or so with them in the morning. And by having a global role, having these bookend-kind of hours, meant that I had a lot more flexibility during the little-kid waking hours.
The people who TikTok seeks out are incredibly open-minded. They’re very, very strong in their experience—in their professional career to date—because, again, it’s not a tiny startup that was started in, like, a college dorm and is hiring friends of friends. It’s really out there trying to find the best there is in the market. I love being able to spend my time with these very smart, very passionate people who are really excited about building something new. And that’s what we encourage in the culture. So, for me, it’s my dream job. It’s amazing.
Heather: Attracting talent is hard in any time, but I think the time we’re in now feels particularly hard. There’s a lot of opportunity out there, and then you have a lot of people that are questioning what they want to do with their lives. How are you seeing that pan out from your perspective? Are you seeing similar trends to the rest of us? And what are some of the ways that you’re keeping talent?
Kate: We have gone from about 300 to 3,000 during COVID, and this is just in the US. So, 90% of our team have never met; we are still all remote. And it’s been such a journey for us over the past almost two years now; because at first, with COVID, we needed to hire. We were growing. We got incredibly lucky that we were a pandemic-friendly product. And we want to be very reflective of how lucky we are that, because people were at home and looking for community and looking for joy, TikTok found even more users and even faster acceleration. We had to hire like crazy, but we had to do it all virtually. So, most people have never been in an office, never been in a TikTok client meeting in person, never met each other. People were really unsure of the situation with COVID, so there wasn’t a lot of job-hopping.
I think this resignation that we’re talking about is very, very new in the past six to eight months. I think it’s wonderful that everyone is being a little bit self-reflective of what matters most in their life. And do they love the job they’re at? Should they look somewhere else? And because everything’s virtual, I think people are really questioning: Do I love the company I work for? Do I relate to this product that we’re selling? Do I see myself in this, or is it just a job? And I think, for a lot of us, we put 150% into work and want to see ourselves in it. And if we don’t relate with the product, we have to look at what else is there. Hopefully, then, it’s the team, it’s your work family that keeps you there. What we’re trying really hard to do is to create that soft network, those family ties within TikTok, so that people feel like they can come and be their authentic selves—really show who they are and have a lot of fun. We’re being as innovative as we can to create that soft network, because I think that that’s what is going to keep people at companies rather than moving on.
Heather: Tell me more about how do you actually create those soft networks in a way that is authentic and doesn’t necessarily feel forced on people. I think it has been hard for a lot of us to figure out the right way to engage.
Kate: We have an incredible head of diversity and inclusion at the company, who has stood up ERGs [Employee Resource Groups] virtually. They have speakers, they have events, we bring in TikTok creators…it’s open to the whole company. You actually get more attendance than if it were in-person. We have seen incredible community over Zoom chat. There’s just so much love going on in our group over the Zoom chat: “That’s so great. I totally relate to that. That’s amazing.” And you see this going on, and it feels very authentic, and it feels live. I think that’s where we’re trying to harness the greater community. So my HR team has grown from 20 to 120 in the last six months.
Heather: Oh, my goodness.
Kate: It’s just exploded, as well. How do we get to know each other? How do the newcomers feel just as plugged in as the old people? And I put coffee talk on the calendar. I’ll just pick four people two or three times a week. We don’t talk about work, but we’ll pick a topic. It can help to have these funny conversations that you might have; for example, if you were the first three people in a meeting room before the meeting started and you’re looking to small talk, how do you create small talk virtually? And that’s how you really feel a bond and get to know funny things about each other. I think you do have to put in a little extra effort when you’re virtual. And maybe when we go back to work, we’ll have to put in extra effort, as well; because we’re getting to know each other again.
Heather: I think a little bit of the extra effort goes a long way. What does your return to office look like here in the States?
Kate: We’re very conservative and want to put the health of our employees first, so we keep pushing it back. But for us right now, we’re looking at three days in the office, two days at home—trying to recognize that people are used to a more flexible in-office situation. A lot of people really value being at home and not commuting and not spending the extra time blow-drying their hair and getting dressed and just, like, working through the day. A lot of other people are desperate to get back in the office, because their apartment or home feels very small. Or they share an apartment or a home, and they don’t have great Wi-Fi; they don’t have great resources, so they really want to get back to the office even more.
Right now, I think a great benefit of being online and on Zoom is that it’s really accessible. Everybody’s there on the screen. Everyone has the same-size square. It’s very, very equal. And my worry about going back to the office is a hybrid situation; while it gives employees flexibility, there could be an in crowd and out crowd—people who show up at the office and have a great side conversation over coffee and then say, “Don’t even worry about the meeting, guys. We figured it out. I chatted with Heather in the hall. We’ve got it all down. We’re not even going to bother with that meeting anymore.” And you’re sitting at home waiting to log in. You have your great discussion points. And you’re like, “But I want to be there. My opinion’s important too.”
So, I think a lot of it is about setting the right norms. Perhaps we have some meetings that are all virtual; even if you’re in the office, you’d log into Zoom and sit at your laptop so that everybody is fully present for it. Those are the different layers that we’re trying to figure out so that, when we return the office, it’s a great experience for them.
Heather: There had been, I think, a lot of cultures that were very much about being physically in the office. And if you weren’t, you really didn’t feel like you were part of the team. Hopefully, this shift actually helps create greater access and equity. A lot of people will talk about Millennials or Gen Z, and what they are looking for in a career has shifted. As you have looked at different positions that you filled and rising talent, what do you think matters most to people? And do you see it changing?
Kate: I think what matters most is feeling like they have a voice, that they’re adding impact. I think, regardless of generation cohort right now, people want to see their individual impact added and want to hear their voice. Even if it’s somebody who’s fresh—it’s their first job ever right out of college—they want a seat at that table. It’s not an “I want to work my way up.” But, to be fair, I’ve also never wanted to work my way up. I relate to that. I’ve always thought I have a voice, I have a lot of opinions, I’ve done my homework, I’m here working hard. Don’t you want to hear what I have to say, too? And so, I respect that. I think that if we’re going out and we’re trying to find really talented, ambitious, hardworking people, then we should be able to let everybody have a voice at the table to get involved. And I think at a company like TikTok, where we’re growing really, really fast and there’s so much to do, that there’s an incredible opportunity for anybody who joins.
TikTok, itself, is not hierarchical at all. We don’t use titles. It’s very open, and it’s really what impact you’re having. So, it blends nicely with this desire for individuals to have a lot of impact. I think for someone who is starting off their career, that can be really gratifying to be able to move on to really challenging work much quicker. And I think that also blends well with, perhaps, a generation that doesn’t really care about the titles. I think it’s, “I want to prove how smart I am with the impact of my work.”
So that’s exactly what we’re looking for, too—people who want to have impact and work hard. For anybody who is looking to rise quickly, find a company that’s growing fast and then just keep saying, “Yes, that sounds great. I’ll dive into that project.” And just keep learning and take on more and more projects, more opportunities. Work with teams that are outside of your team, because you get this incredible exposure very fast. And then you can find yourself in a really interesting role within a company—because, even if you’ve only been there for a year or two, you can be seen as an expert.
I think that that blends nicely with the aspirations of a new generation of workers who are looking to come in, make a splash, have that seat at the table. We’re saying, “Great, come on in and do it. You have to work hard.” We’re very, very collaborative as a company and want people to work hard together and to be creative together and to be open-minded and listening to each other. I think that is really important, but it’s also important for this new generation who wants to be heard and seen.
Heather: Let’s talk about TikTok Resumés. Over the summer of 2021, this soft launch and now TikTok is kind of helping other companies recruit talent. Talk to me about that, what the response has been and how you see that effort growing over time.
Kate: I think it is a really interesting new idea and product. For us, it started incredibly organically. We had a fresh college graduate apply for our account manager role, and she happened to make a TikTok after she applied and said, “Hey, TikTok. Look at me. I applied. You should hire me.” And one of the women on my HR team happened to see the video in her “for you” feed. The “for you” feed is just so amazing in how random it shows you things but that, at the same time, it really knows you.
She was hired and is doing incredibly well. And then we looked at this as a way to say, “Hey, this is an opportunity to get to know people much more authentically, much more 3D.” I think a lot of us realize that the CV is very stale. Your resumé…we edit it down. We use all these action words. Everybody uses the same words. It’s the same bullet. You look online for a template.
Having a video that’s also super short—15 seconds, 30 seconds—shows your personality. You might be able to say, especially if you are applying to a sales or marketing role, “I’m capable at selling something. This is how I would talk to you. This is how I would pitch a brand or a product.” It’s really unique, and it allows people to be themselves in a way that might present a lot better than just the CV. And especially for fresh graduates or people who are newer in their career, where your CV is relatively slim, it’s an opportunity to shine.
So, where we started this summer was partnering with a few different companies—HBO was one of them—to advertise for their internship program on TikTok. And interns applied only through TikTok Resumes. We are very excited for it to keep growing; it is going to continue to evolve. And like most of the things on TikTok, it started out organically. It was a user that said, this is how I want to use the product. I want to use TikTok, as a platform for myself to pitch myself as a resume. And I think we looked at that and said, that’s a great idea; let’s build off of that.
And so right now, in partnering with different brands, we’re learning: What would they like to see? How will this enhance the applicant process? It still needs to be really useful, so that it’s not an added step for recruiters—because we all know that the recruitment team is one of the hardest-working teams in every company right now, trying to screen tons of applicants, as well as do outreach and hire high volumes. We want to make sure it’s a real value-add, and also something very innovative and creative.
Heather: Talk to me about your role. What would people be surprised to hear?
Kate: I’m laughing, because I’m saying this incredibly humbly and also just joking. No offense, please. No one take offense at this…
I don’t think there are that many people who aspire to work in HR when you’re in college. I think, as a field, it is not appreciated enough for what it does. I know that when I first started working in HR, I also did not understand the full breadth of what the team does. I think the misunderstanding of what HR does is just hire and fire. Read resumés and throw them out. You’re just kind of like there shredding resumés. Okay. You have a job? No, I don’t like you now. Fine. And then you’re the police: It was an HR violation. Watch out! HR is in the room. You can’t make a joke, or don’t do anything! And then you get fired by HR. I think that’s an old vision of HR. A lot of great companies have worked hard to change it. I think Google has done a ton around starting a People department.
But I love the field, and I love all the people who work in it. I think that, at its core, it’s trying to understand people. It’s trying to understand what motivates us. So, it’s a really interesting role when you’re hiring. If you’re a recruiter, you’re trying to understand the applicant at its core. Who is this person? What motivates them? Will they be happy in this role? And then there are the HR business partners, who are trying to help teams work together and help people find their next career move and find their self-satisfaction or help leaders really bond while with a team or a leader makes a really difficult decision.
If you do the job right, you understand the business really well, you have the trust of everyone; and people come to you for advice, because they trust you as the third party who knows them, who knows the intentions, who will give them advice to help them succeed at their job. And you’re there to make a difference in someone’s life, you’re there to make someone get the promotion or you’re there to help give someone a job. HR executives are really about building trust, understanding human emotions, understanding the motivation for people and helping people excel. We’re here to amplify. We amplify culture. If you’re a people person, if you’re the fixer of your friends, if you’re the matchmaker or the one who’s always organizing things for people, I think HR is a great fit. I think that’s maybe where it’s misunderstood—and that’s what I really love about it.
Heather: I think that the tide is turning in the recognition that HR is a hugely strategic important role in a company, especially as we’re grappling with new technologies, with the importance of inclusion and belonging and diversity. All of those things have risen to the top, and they’re not just the HR issues but are company issues. You’re kind of in the center of that, which I think is so exciting. As I mentioned earlier, you’re currently on maternity leave—and I, have to say, very bright-eyed and awake and not sleep-deprived at all! Tell me how your second leave has been different from your first leave and advice that you would give to new moms or dads that are going to be returning after taking some time off.
Kate: We’re seeing a huge baby boom right now at TikTok. I imagine lots of other companies are, as well. And for me, this second leave is so much calmer. The first time I was out on leave, I had a lot more anxiety around being out. “I hope I’m not replaced. Am I going to be seen as working hard enough? Should I take all of this leave? What else could I be doing?” I was always wanting to check in.
This time around, it goes so fast. I know it goes so fast, and I realized I have an incredible team. They don’t need me to micromanage while I’m out on leave. It’s actually a really great opportunity for people to step up and take on the responsibility or share responsibilities and have exposure to things that they might not have, because they’re covering for me while I’m gone. So, I am appreciating every moment. I haven’t felt any anxiety over being out in terms of was I seen as taking too long of leave, was I missing out on important projects? Even at TikTok, which moves at this lightning pace. And I joke with my boss that it might be a different company when I come back, because going out for four and a half, five months is dog years. But it’ll be really fun to go back and see what everyone else has accomplished while I’ve been gone. If you’re fortunate to have it—and I know not everyone does but, if you’re at a company that has it—I say take it and appreciate it, because it goes by really quickly and you have to trust in your teams.
Heather: This is the time that you deserve and that the baby deserves, and then you come back, hopefully, as energized as ever before.
Kate: I will say, it was very interesting being pregnant over Zoom, because no one saw it. So, it wasn’t a topic of conversation. Even after I told people, it wasn’t first and foremost—whereas with the first pregnancy, it was the first thing people said when I walked into a meeting at work. That was my personality for so many months at work: I was the pregnant HR director at work. How would I be able to do this project while pregnant? Could I do this after the babies? I found it incredibly refreshing to not have it be the first point of conversation in every single meeting just because it wasn’t visibly there.
Heather: I can completely appreciate that. Being on a panel, let’s say, of one woman and three men, the question that the woman is asked is, “How do you balance being a mom and work?” I appreciate that as a question, but the men don’t get asked that. So, it becomes something that, yes, should be part of your persona but becomes almost too much to a certain extent.
The podcast is all about showcasing rising leaders, iconic brands and people who I think are iconic. So, my question to you is, do you have an icon?
Kate: I have a couple of work mentors. I think the person right now, who I’m learning from most, is our global head of sales, Blake Chandlee. He’s one of the reasons why I took the job. When I met him, everything clicked; and he’s the person whom I spend all of my time with now from an HR partnering perspective—planning the path of the business, planning the path of the team. I remember our first conversation over Zoom—he has a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and we talked about our family and our kids the whole time. He was saying he would want to work really, really hard—and he knows exactly how much effort goes into building a rocket ship, having done it at Facebook and previously at Yahoo—but it was important not to lose sight of putting in your family time and putting in your own time. And I thought, “Wow, that was just a really powerful thing to hear from someone who’s going to be the global head of sales at this new company.” He is incredibly empathetic as a leader and looks at the people at the core of every business decision. So he’s an incredible partner from an HR perspective—somebody who’s really on the same wavelength.
Heather: It sounds amazing; and not just saying, “Yes, family is important,” but really living it that I think is amazing and something you don’t always see.
I want to thank you so much, Kate, for spending time with us today. And, your daughter did not make her podcast debut—but maybe in a couple of months.
Kate: I can go wake her up if you want to see her.
Heather: You’re doing amazing work, and the passion that you bring to the table in talking about this brand that is on everybody’s minds and phones and lips is really exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Kate: Well, thank you, Heather.
TikTok itself is not hierarchical at all. We don't use titles. It's very open and it's really what impact are you having?