Elon Musk’s reputation precedes him.
The apparently impulsive and demanding head of SpaceX and Tesla is known to place value above all on the product. And regardless of whether the people who make the products agree with how he plans to achieve his ambitions, or with the ambitions themselves, they are often expected to do their utmost—sometimes sleeping on company floor— to make it happen or otherwise.
While there is precedent for the billionaire’s early actions as head of Twitter, little could have prepared the social media platform’s staff for what followed in the first month of his acquisition.
Twitter employees preparing for what was to come under Musk’s leadership gained insights into the kind of boss he would be through years of Tesla and SpaceX coverage and numerous court cases.
For example, after Musk laid off about 500 workers at Tesla’s Giga factory in Sparks, Nevada, in June, two former employees sued the company for allegedly violating California’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires 60 days’ notice as well Salary and benefits for this period. In 2017, Musk announced that soon-to-be-released Tesla vehicles would feature hardware that would eventually allow the cars to drive themselves, surprising and frustrating some of the company’s in-house engineers. Musk also said he expects Tesla employees to work 100 hours a week to get the Model 3 out. And in 2020, Tesla notoriously dissolved its PR department.
On Twitter, after days at the helm of the billionaire, employees saw similar patterns. In the second week, nearly half of the company’s workforce was laid off without notice, prompting some to preemptively file a class-action lawsuit alleging that Musk violated California labor laws. Also among those laid off was the company’s communications department, which runs Twitter without a PR team. Twitter is also facing a second complaint, filed on behalf of a group of contractors who also claim they were not notified prior to their termination.
Meanwhile, Musk was making announcements or announcements of product changes on Twitter, and his new hires rushed to finish them, tweeting pictures of their sleeping bags on the floor. But as quick as he had employees roll out new features like the paid Twitter Blue subscription, he had them reset it due to numerous issues — including accounts impersonating brands and public figures being verified.
But some of what he did went beyond what was reported or became public knowledge at Musk’s other companies. Some of this is intentional. After a series of employee leaks, Tesla urged its employees to “renew their vows” and sign new confidentiality agreements in 2018 that barred them from speaking to the media. The non-disclosure agreement was the subject of a legal challenge from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for violations of workers’ rights.
On Twitter, where the culture before Musk allowed for some level of public opposition or criticism of company policies, employees — or now ex-employees — also feel repressed. Several employees who publicly tweeted corrections or denied claims Musk made were fired. In one instance, Musk publicly announced the termination of an engineer by name Eric Frohnhoefer, tweeted “He’s fired” in response to Frohnhoefer’s tweet correcting an assessment by Musk of why the site was so slow. Musk later deleted the tweet. The Tesla CEO back then notified of the layoffs. Musk is also reportedly firing employees who have criticized him at Slack, the third-party messaging service employees use internally.
On the productivity side, Musk has asked employees to decide whether they’re willing to work long hours “at high intensity” or leave and take three months’ severance pay, 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 employees — opted for severance, leaving some key roles and teams with emergency staffing.
“Only exceptional performance constitutes a passing grade,” says the letter he wrote to the staff.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing laid-off Twitter employees and contractors, said her office has “taken calls from Twitter employees seeking clarity about their rights.” Liss-Riordan submitted new lawsuit Thursday, before the deadline, alleging that the company’s requirement to come into the office and work long hours of high intensity violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The proposed class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a technical executive who said he was fired for refusing to report to the office because of a disability that puts him at risk of Covid-19.
“Elon Musk has inflicted a lot of pain and uncertainty on the company’s employees in such a short amount of time since taking control of Twitter,” Liss-Riordan said in a statement. “His last midnight ultimatum to employees that they have to decide by tomorrow whether they want to be part of the ‘new Twitter’ has put them in an incredibly difficult position.”
Musk’s behavior may come as a shock to many, but it’s not entirely surprising to former Tesla and SpaceX employees. At SpaceX, eight former employees allege a similar culture of retaliation and filed a complaint with the NLRB on Thursday They were fired for challenging Musk in an open letter in June. “Elon’s public behavior is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” the letter said.
At Tesla, former employees said that Musk only cared about the product and that working out disagreements with the billionaire requires a degree of goodwill, typically developed by building or helping launch successful products. Long hours are also inevitable, said a former Tesla employee, so people have to decide how sustainable that is for them.
Musk’s management style and decisions at Twitter are likely to continue to gain public traction, given the nature of the company 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 track to tweet more than 25 times a day. However, it’s unclear how long Musk plans to remain at the helm of the now-embattled platform. At a November 16 trial over how Tesla’s CEO received a board-approved compensation package that’s now worth $52 billion (£44 billion), Musk said he plans to eventually take the reins to be handed over by Twitter.
“I expect to cut back on my time on Twitter and eventually find someone to run Twitter,” he said.