How Elon Musk’s Twitter reign magnified his brutal management style | Elon Musk
Elon Musk’s reputation precedes him.
The seemingly impulsive and demanding boss of SpaceX and Tesla is known to place importance on the product above all. And whether the employees building the products agree with how he plans to achieve his ambitions, or the ambition itself, they are often expected to go above and beyond – at times sleeping on the company floor – to make it happen, or else.
Although there is some precedent for the billionaire’s initial acts as head of Twitter, little could have prepared employees of the social media platform for what ensued in the first month of his acquisition.
Twitter employees bracing for what was to come under Musk’s leadership were given glimpses of the kind of boss he would be from years of Tesla and SpaceX coverage and numerous lawsuits.
For instance, in June, after Musk laid off 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-day advance notice as well as pay and benefits for that period. In 2017, Musk announced that the soon-to-be-released Tesla vehicles would have hardware that would eventually allow the cars to drive itself, surprising and frustrating some of the company’s own engineers. Musk also said that he expected Tesla employees to work 100 hours a week in the ramp up to releasing the Model 3. And in 2020, Tesla notoriously dissolved its public relations department.
At Twitter, days into the billionaire’s helm, employees saw similar patterns. In the second week, nearly half of the company’s workforce were laid off with little notice, prompting some to preemptively file a class-action lawsuit alleging Musk violated California labor law. Among those laid off were the company’s communications department, rendering Twitter without a public relations team. Twitter is also facing a second complaint filed on behalf of a group of contractors who also allege they were not given notice before they were terminated.
In the meantime, Musk made product change announcements, or pronouncements, on Twitter, and his new employees rushed to get them done, tweeting pictures of their sleeping bags on the floor. But as quickly as he had employees roll out new features such as the pay-for-verification Twitter Blue subscription, he had them roll it back due to numerous problems – including accounts posing as brands and public figures getting verified.
But some of what he’s done has gone beyond what has been reported or tricked into the public arena at Musk’s other companies. Part of that is by design. After a series of employee leaks, Tesla required its employees to “renew their vows” and sign new confidentiality agreements in 2018 that barred them from speaking with the media. The confidentiality agreement was the subject of a legal challenge from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for violating workers’ rights.
At Twitter, where the culture before Musk allowed for some degree of public pushback or critiques of company policy, employees – or now former employees – are also seeing their voices stifled. Several employees who publicly tweeted corrections or pushed back on assertions Musk made were fired. In one case, Musk publicly announced the termination of an engineer named Eric Frohnhoefer, tweeting “he’s fired” in response to Frohnhoefer’s tweet correcting an assessment Musk made about why the site was so slow. Musk later deleted the tweet. The Tesla CEO then made light of the terminations. Musk is also reportedly firing employees who’ve criticized him on Slack, the third-party messaging service employees use internally.
On the productivity side, Musk has asked employees to decide whether they are willing to work long hours “at high intensity” or leave 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 to 1,200 of the remaining staffers – opted to take the severance leaving some critical roles and teams with a skeleton crew.
“Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade,” the letter he wrote to employees read.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing Twitter employees and contractors who have been laid off said her office has been “fielding calls from Twitter employees seeking clarity about their rights”. Liss-Riordan filed a new lawsuit on Thursday, ahead of the deadline, alleging the company’s requirement to come into the office and put in long hours at a high intensity violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The proposed class action 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 puts him at risk of Covid-19.
“Since he took control of Twitter, Elon Musk has put the company’s workers through a great deal of pain and uncertainty in such a short amount of time,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement. “His latest midnight ultimatum to employees that they have to decide by tomorrow if they want to be a part of the ‘new Twitter’ has put them in an incredibly difficult position.”
Musk’s behavior may come as a shock to many, but to form 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 about little more than the product and that negotiating disagreements with the billionaire requires some amount of goodwill typically developed by building or helping launch successful products. Working long hours is also unavoidable, one former Tesla employee said, so people have to decide how sustainable that is for them.
Musk’s management style and decisions at Twitter are likely to continue to play out publicly because of the nature of the company and the newly-minted social media executive’s proclivity toward and inability to resist tweeting. By the end of the first week of November, Musk was on pace to tweet more than 25 times a day. But it’s unclear how long Musk plans to stay at the helm of the now-embattled platform. At a 16 November trial challenging how the Tesla CEO got a now $52bn (£44bn) compensation package approved by the board, Musk said he eventually planned to hand over the reins of Twitter.
“I expect to reduce my time at Twitter and find somebody else to run Twitter over time,” he said.