First week of Elon Musk’s Twitter was chaos and confusion for employees

Late Thursday, the ax started falling, as the company hacked away large parts of the workforce of roughly 7,500 people, aiming to reduce costs and reshape Twitter to align with Mr. Musk’s vision (Photo: AFP)
Late Thursday, the ax started falling, as the company hacked away large parts of the workforce of roughly 7,500 people, aiming to reduce costs and reshape Twitter to align with Mr. Musk’s vision (Photo: AFP)

Summary

As Mr. Musk opined and joked on the platform about possible product changes, the mood inside the company was anxious and grim

Inside Twitter Inc. in the week after Elon Musk took it over, almost no one seemed to know for sure what was going on.

As Mr. Musk opined and joked on the platform about possible product changes, the mood among many inside the company was anxious and grim, according to interviews with employees. The one thing that seemed certain to employees was that many of them would soon lose their jobs, they said.

Late Thursday, the ax started falling, as the company hacked away large parts of the workforce of roughly 7,500 people, aiming to reduce costs and reshape Twitter to align with Mr. Musk’s vision. Befitting a platform built for real-time reaction, staffers tweeted as they lost access to company Slack and email accounts, not knowing for sure if that meant they were fired until official termination notices were sent on Friday morning.

The mass layoffs were the culmination of a dizzying week under Mr. Musk’s leadership, in which employees tried to adjust to his frenetic working style as their own futures at the company were in doubt. In internal messages and public posts, workers confronted the chaos with a mixture of anguish and wry jokes.

One programmer, Sheon Han, tweeted a picture of the Twitter logo next to a head of lettuce, in a spoof on the U.K. tabloid stunt to see if an unrefrigerated head of lettuce would last longer than Prime Minister Liz Truss. In the case of Ms. Truss, the lettuce won.

“My employee login @Twitter vs. Lettuce," Mr. Han tweeted on Wednesday night, adding, “Let’s goooooooooo."

Mr. Han declined to provide comment about his employment status Friday.

Manu Cornet, a 41-year-old software engineer, said he was among the employees who met Mr. Musk at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters in the billionaire’s first days as the self-styled “Chief Twit."

Mr. Cornet, also an artist, had drawn a cartoon of a man who had accidentally broken a figurine of a bird resembling the Twitter logo, with another man saying: “You break it, you buy it!" He said he gave a copy of the cartoon to Mr. Musk.

On Monday, Mr. Cornet said he was summoned to work on new projects. Two days later, he received an email that read, in part: “We regret to inform you that your employment is terminated effective immediately. Your recent behavior has violated multiple policies."

He said he wasn’t sure which policies he had violated. He added that he had recently created a browser extension for downloading work emails, which he believed would help colleagues save important documents in case they got laid off.

Mr. Cornet is among a group of employees who filed a lawsuit against Twitter in San Francisco federal court accusing the company of violating federal and state law by not providing the legally required warning in advance of mass layoffs.

Twitter representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In an email late Thursday telling employees that they would be informed the following morning if they were fired, the company said the layoffs were “an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path."

Mr. Musk, in a tweet late Friday, said: “Regarding Twitter’s reduction in force, unfortunately there is no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day." He said affected employees were offered three months of severance.

On Saturday, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who stepped down as CEO last year and who supported Mr. Musk’s acquisition, tweeted saying he took responsibility for growing the company too quickly. “I apologize for that," he wrote.

Employees trickled out of Twitter steadily in the months after Mr. Musk’s $44 billion deal in April to buy the company, anxious about how things would play out. As Mr. Musk began to get cold feet, he lashed out publicly at Twitter leaders including then-CEO Parag Agrawal, fueling tension among many employees. Mr. Musk waged a monthslong legal battle to escape the deal before finally agreeing, again, to buy the platform last month.

As the billionaire completed the takeover on Oct. 27, Mr. Agrawal and several other top executives were fired immediately. That was followed by media reports of planning for broad layoffs. Fears grew among many employees that Mr. Musk could try to cut jobs before a Nov. 1 stock vesting date, employees said. In a tweet after taking over, Mr. Musk denied that he would do so.

That meant employees’ grants were expected to be paid as cash at $54.20 a share, the price Mr. Musk paid for the company, according to SEC filings. The price represented a healthy premium over what Twitter had been valued at before the acquisition, creating a substantial windfall for employees with equity holdings.

Shortly after Mr. Musk’s takeover, Twitter managers were told to draw up lists evaluating staffers—essentially deciding who might stay and who might get fired, according to people familiar with the matter. Some employees referred to Mr. Musk’s allies as “goons," they said.

The frustration among some employees was amplified, some of them said, by Tesla engineers being brought in to examine Twitter employees’ coding work. The Twitter employees believed those evaluations were being factored into the layoff plans, the people said.

The specifics of when the layoffs would come, and on what scale, were closely guarded.

One senior employee said that even information communicated to the inner circle was unreliable and contradictory. “The chaos level is so high," the employee said.

Mr. Musk gathered a circle of advisers to help him reshape Twitter, including venture-capitalists Jason Calacanis and Sriram Krishnan, also a former Twitter product leader. Meanwhile, Mr. Musk fired off tweets about various business possibilities. Employees were given days to develop new products, and plans appeared to change.

This rapid-fire approach to product development was a radical departure from the development style at the old Twitter, where any new products were closely studied to gauge how they would affect usage rates and other potential impacts.

Mr. Musk’s plan includes changing the platform by expanding user verification and improving the subscription offerings to become less reliant on advertisers. He also discussed adding ways for content creators to make money on the platform so that they could earn a living on it, the way creators do on TikTok and YouTube.

Mr. Musk at one point tweeted a poll asking whether he should bring back Vine, the short-video service that Twitter shut down in 2016. The company has discussed relaunching a version of Vine by the end of the year, according to one employee.

Soon after the email to all employees went out Thursday, a staffer posted to the company’s internal Slack channel wishing everyone well and concluding with the “saluting face" emoji, according to employees.

That kicked off an hourslong series of such salutes from hundreds of Twitter employees. It eventually spilled into public tweets, with the saluting emoji becoming a symbol of the end of the pre-Musk version of the company. “There was this weird sense of celebration," one employee said. “We were all together marking the ending of this thing."

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