Elon Musk’s reputation precedes him.
The seemingly impulsive and demanding boss of SpaceX and Tesla is known to value product above all else. And whether the employees who build the products agree with how he plans to achieve his ambitions, or the ambition itself, they are often expected to go above and beyond – sometimes sleeping on the company floor – to get there, or else.
While there is precedent for the billionaire’s initial actions at the helm of Twitter, little could have prepared the social media platform’s employees for what ensued in the first month of its acquisition. .
Twitter employees preparing for what was to come under Musk’s leadership got a glimpse of the kind of boss he would be after years of Tesla and SpaceX coverage and numerous lawsuits.
For example, in June, after Musk fired about 500 workers from Tesla’s Giga factory in Sparks, Nevada, two former employees sued the company for allegedly violating California’s Warn Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining). Notification), which requires 60 days notice as well as salary and benefits for that period. In 2017, Musk announced that soon-to-be-released Tesla vehicles would have hardware that would eventually allow the cars to drive themselves, surprising and frustrating some of the company’s own engineers. Musk also said he expects Tesla employees to work 100 hours a week in ramping up the Model 3 release. And in 2020, Tesla notoriously disbanded its public relations department.
At Twitter, a few days into the billionaire’s leadership, employees saw similar patterns. In the second week, nearly half of the company’s workforce was furloughed without notice, prompting some to preemptively file a class action lawsuit alleging Musk violated California labor laws. Among those fired was the company’s communications department, which deprived Twitter of a public relations team. Twitter is also facing a second lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of contractors who also claim they were not notified prior to their layoffs.
In the meantime, Musk made product change announcements, or statements, on Twitter, and his new hires rushed to make them, tweeting pictures of their sleeping bags on the floor. But as soon as he asked employees to roll out new features like the paid subscription to Twitter Blue, he had them canceled due to a host of issues, including accounts impersonating brands and public figures making the object of verification.
But some of what he did went beyond what was reported or spilled into the public arena of Musk’s other companies. Part of that is down to design. After a series of employee leaks, Tesla asked its employees to “renew their vows” and sign new confidentiality agreements in 2018 that prohibited them from speaking to the media. The confidentiality agreement was the subject of a legal challenge by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for violation of workers’ rights.
On Twitter, where the culture before Musk allowed for some degree of public denial or criticism of company policy, employees — or now former employees — also find their voices muffled. Several employees who publicly tweeted corrections or pushed back against Musk’s claims have been fired. In one instance, Musk publicly announced the firing of an engineer named Eric Frohnhoefer, tweeting “he’s fired” in response to Frohnhoefer’s tweet correcting an assessment made by Musk about why the site was so slow. Musk later deleted the tweet. The CEO of Tesla then sheds light on terminations. Musk also reportedly fired employees who criticized him on Slack, the third-party messaging service employees use internally.
On the productivity side, Musk asked employees to decide whether they were willing to work long “high-intensity” hours or walk away and take three months’ severance, The New York Times reported. The deadline for their decision was Thursday evening. Many employees – some reports estimate between 1,000 and 1,200 of the remaining staff – opted to leave, leaving some critical roles and teams with a reduced crew.
“Only outstanding performance will constitute a passing grade,” read the letter he wrote to employees.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing Twitter employees and contractors who were terminated, said her office was “responding to calls from Twitter employees seeking clarification of their rights.” Liss-Riordan filed a retrial Thursday, before the deadline, alleging that the company’s requirement to report to the office and work long hours at high intensity violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The proposed class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of an engineering manager who said he was fired for refusing to report to the office due to a disability that put him at risk of Covid-19.
“Since taking control of Twitter, Elon Musk has caused company employees to experience a great deal of pain and uncertainty in such a short time,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement. “His latest midnight ultimatum to employees that they must decide by tomorrow if they want to be part of the ‘new Twitter’ has put them in an incredibly difficult position.”
Musk’s behavior may shock many, but for former Tesla and SpaceX employees, it’s not entirely surprising. At SpaceX, eight former employees allege a similar culture of retaliation and filed a complaint with the NLRB on Thursday claiming they were fired for challenging Musk in an open letter written in June. “Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” the letter read.
At Tesla, former employees said Musk cared little more than the product and that negotiating disagreements with the billionaire required a certain amount of goodwill usually developed by building or helping launch successful products. Working long hours is also unavoidable, said a former Tesla employee, so people have to decide how sustainable that is for them.
Musk’s management style and decisions on Twitter will likely continue to be made public due to the nature of the business and the new social media executive’s propensity and inability to resist tweeting. By the end of the first week of November, Musk was on course to tweet more than 25 times a day. But it’s unclear how long Musk plans to remain at the helm of the now-beleaguered platform. During a lawsuit on November 16 challenging how the Tesla CEO won now $52bn (£44bn) board-approved compensation, Musk said he ultimately plans to hand over the reins of Twitter.
“I expect to reduce my time on Twitter and find someone else to manage Twitter over time,” he said.