When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he lit a match. The social media giant went up in flames as mass layoffs wiped out entire teams and impacted the lives of thousands of employees, internally known as Tweeps.
“It’s total chaos,” said former Twitter software engineer Eric Frohnhoefer. Frohnhoefer worked at the company for eight years before Musk fired him in a tweet. Why? Frohnhoefer publicly challenged him.
The software engineer wasn’t trying to get himself fired. It wasn’t a moral issue Frohnhoefer spoke out against; it was a technical one, the substance of which he understood deeply.
Didn’t matter. He was out of a job.
Initially, Frohnhoefer planned to “hang on a bit and see” what happened with Musk in charge, despite harboring concerns about the impact the world’s richest man would have on Twitter’s culture. He’d caught wind of concerns from employees at Musk’s other companies, like Tesla and SpaceX.
“Elon is a technical leader of the highest order, and yet is widely seen as an unapproachable tyrant who devalues the contributions of the staff and may fire them on a whim,” said one Tesla worker in a 2018 survey recently resurfaced by Insider. Those words are prescient of what is occurring at Twitter, as former and current employees attest.
Musk “came in [to Twitter] and didn’t say anything for a whole week. The first communication was, ‘We’re laying people off.’ And then you just got randomly fired,” Frohnhoefer said.
Explaining what motivated him to challenge Musk publicly, Frohnhoefer said, “One of Twitter’s core values was: Communicate fearlessly to build trust. I communicated fearlessly.”
Yesterday’s core value became today’s fireable offense.
Two current Twitter employees, who spoke to Compliance Week on the condition of anonymity, described the summary firings in further detail.
“A lot of employees are struggling with a profound sense of loss, not only for how the company has changed but for the people we’ve lost. As cliché as it sounds, Twitter really was a family.”
Anonymous Twitter employee
“He has fired employees for being critical of him. He has fired employees whose coding is not up to snuff. He has fired employees because he doesn’t like what they do. … I know people who have left Slack channels not because they posted anything in them but because they are seeing critical commentary in those channels and don’t want to be associated,” said one employee.
Tweeps were shook not only by the widespread nature of job cuts but also by how they were carried out—with no prior warning or communication whatsoever.
“It’s literally just waking up to being locked out of systems,” another current Twitter employee said.
Musk’s decision to lay waste to whole teams fostered an atmosphere of fear, confusion, and uncertainty for those who remain.
“A lot of employees are struggling with a profound sense of loss, not only for how the company has changed but for the people we’ve lost,” said a current employee. “As cliché as it sounds, Twitter really was a family.”
The company is no longer actively on fire, one employee said, but the house “is definitely still smoldering.” Riddled with apprehension, staff must try to navigate this cultural shift. Meanwhile, Musk’s radical intervention offers a case study, unfolding in real time, on whether a beleaguered company plagued by fear and toxicity can reverse a downward spiral.
Since Musk purchased Twitter, he fired its CEO before him, dismantled its nine-member board, slashed staff in half, and issued a 24-hour ultimatum to remaining employees: Either sign on for “hardcore” Twitter, working long and arduous hours, or leave with three months’ severance. Hundreds of employees resigned, The Verge reported.
Musk initially ordered a full-time return-to-office policy, though in subsequent weeks he relaxed its enforcement. Still, other employee benefits were revoked in a clean sweep.
“We had ‘days of rest’ one Monday per month. One week per month was a focus week. Every Friday was a no-meeting Friday. We had an unlimited vacation policy and great benefits regarding productivity allowances and wellness allowances. Pretty much all of those have been overturned,” a current Twitter employee said.
“The idea of a day without meetings doesn’t compute to Elon,” the employee added.
Fear. Toxicity. Moroseness.
These are the words former and current employees used to describe the current atmosphere at Twitter.
“People are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, undersupported, underresourced, (and) overdemanded. It’s not a pleasant working environment. … The climate has changed a lot,” said a current employee.
“For those of us who were around in the years before the acquisition, the culture was incredible. … Just really unbelievably outspoken, thoughtful, critical, engaging, dynamic, and colorful. And all of those have been depleted in recent weeks,” the employee said.
Musk’s iron fist triggered a tsunami of negative emotions from employees. Paired with an unclear vision for the company—at his first town hall, he said he didn’t “have a great answer” to what his vision was—unrest will only mount.
Without vision and values, leadership is hollow. This is a tenet of the management theory espoused by Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a world-renowned expert in change management.
“From what I’ve read, [Musk] appears to lack empathy and [a willingness to] act in a way that will minimize damage and maximize loyalty,” Kanter said. “He certainly has imagination and vision: his building of Tesla from merely an idea. … So far, we have not seen a vision for Twitter. The vision for Twitter was set by its founders.”
Half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers appear to no longer be advertising on the site, according to a report from Media Matters for America cited by NPR. While Musk tweeted and touted “an all-time high” of daily active users on Nov. 21, there is no shortage of news articles reporting users deactivating their Twitter accounts en masse. MIT Technology Review reported Twitter might have lost more than a million users in Musk’s first week of ownership.
“If the users feel employees are disgruntled, they will be worried about possible consequences, including sabotage and poor service. Users will start departing,” said Kanter. “That, in turn, is negative for employees, and it starts setting a vicious cycle in motion where customer worries lead to employee worries lead to more customer worries lead to more negative behavior on everybody’s part.”
Obviously, Musk is aware of employee backlash. His solution, in one current Twitter employee’s words, is to embrace and amplify a retaliatory culture.
“I think a lot of the people who are the most vocal have left the company at this point,” said the employee.
Musk appears to see the departures as a necessary purge of the old guard. Losing advertising dollars in the short term, too, could be rationalized as part of the rebirth process.
Musk’s confidence in his ability to build a company up after he’s burnt it to the ground is unwavering. With the success of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and more at his back, his ego is not unsubstantiated, but it is double-edged.
“If the users feel employees are disgruntled, they will be worried about possible consequences, including sabotage and poor service. Users will start departing.”
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor, Harvard Business School
As a person, Musk possesses a tenacity that enables him to shake off any manner of adversity to achieve a goal. But that blind ambition can be his downfall as a people leader.
Culture doesn’t appear to be a priority now. Such a situation has preceded the collapse of companies before (ask Elizabeth Holmes). It would behoove Musk to restore trust, somehow, if he wants to motivate employees under a shared purpose.
Turning a corner culturally with Tweeps is improbable, one employee said.
“It would require [Musk] to embrace a kind of epistemological humility he doesn’t understand. He is so intellectually hubristic he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong,” the employee said.
“I definitely don’t think he’s taken time or shown any interest in understanding the culture,” said another employee. “There hasn’t been any effort on his part … of him coming in and trying to see what makes Twitter, Twitter. He’s so focused on the code part of it and the physical pieces and parts. He hasn’t learned yet that, honestly, what made the app so great is the culture.”
While one employee is trying to keep a shred of optimism Twitter old’s culture will withstand the upheaval, the other is actively job seeking.
“When there’s an intervention, that radical intervention makes it worse, at least for a while, and then it takes a long time to build a new strategy and a new team and a new way to be successful,” Kanter said.
Perhaps Musk sees disgruntled employees and a fractured culture as inevitable collateral damage in his long-term plan for Twitter’s success. Financially speaking, the company was already in a downward spiral before his buyout.
Maybe this dark period of turbulence is a necessary evil, in his view. It’s possible. It’s also possible deprioritizing people and culture now will prove to be his grave mistake later.