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‘Case study in how not to do it’: Musk’s Twitter overhaul could demoralize employees

Elon Musk sent Twitter staff an e-mail on Tuesday with an ultimatum: Accept the company's new direction, or face unemployment.Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Elon Musk crowned himself “Chief Twit” in late October after buying Twitter for $44 billion and showing up at the company headquarters with a sink in hand.

Three weeks later, Musk has laid off half of Twitter’s workforce, sparred with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey in a series of tweets, and stripped away Twitter’s verification system, in favor of a new, paid-for version of Twitter Blue.

Musk has doubled down on his efforts to overhaul Twitter and its workplace culture. On Tuesday, he sent all employees an e-mail calling for them to embrace a new, “extremely hardcore” work culture that involves working long hours at high intensity to build a “breakthrough Twitter 2.0,″ as reported by the Washington Post.

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The e-mail included an ultimatum: Twitter employees could mark “yes” to embracing the new culture by 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday and remain at the company, or be fired and receive three months of severance. The move came as Musk has also slashed remote and hybrid work options, required all employees to be in the office (though he seemed to soften his stance on Thursday), and fired a number of engineers who criticized him.

Workplace and management experts reached by the Globe have major concerns about Twitter’s workforce — and its future.

While high turnover and redefining culture are common in large acquisitions, moving to cut the company’s workforce in half while ramping up hours and intensity on short notice is a recipe for burnout in the short term, said Caroline Walsh, a vice president in the human resources practice at the Connecticut-based management consulting firm Gartner.

Offices for Twitter in San FranciscoJASON HENRY/NYT

“Those who are left are already feeling frustrated, they’re feeling disengaged, they’re likely less productive right now,” Walsh said. “And then being given an ultimatum, reduced flexibility, that’s only going to add to their feelings of burnout and disengagement. In the short term it might really damage productivity.”

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Bob Kelleher, founder and CEO of Boston-based Employee Engagement Group and a long-time HR consultant, has been critical of Musk’s brash leadership style.

“The way he’s engaging with his workers, it doesn’t make any sense,” Kelleher said in an interview. “It defies all the principles of engagement. ... Right now, he has a demoralized workforce. And he’s going to have a very difficult time reenergizing them, and getting them focused on the new direction he wants to take the company.”

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report released earlier this year, stress in the workplace is at an all-time high, with 44 percent of respondents experiencing “a lot of daily stress in the previous day.” With Musk reportedly pushing for an 80-hour work week and cutting remote options, employee stress at Twitter has likely spiked in recent weeks.

A key flashpoint was Monday, when the billionaire got into a public disagreement with a Twitter engineer over the speed of the company’s Android app.

After a pointed exchange, Musk said “he’s fired,” referring to the engineer, in a since-deleted tweet. This chaotic exchange in the public eye exemplifies Twitter’s current state and points to a fundamental lack of empathy, said Fred Foulkes, a professor in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University and director of the university’s Human Resource Policy Institute.

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“Normally, when a company does layoffs, they do it carefully,” Foulkes said. “You have a one-on-one meeting with the individual and the boss, you show empathy, you show support. ... Anyone who teaches human resources will tell their students that this is a great case study in how not to do it.”

Musk has quickly pushed to implement new features after purchasing the company. The new verification system, which allows for Twitter Blue members to receive verification status for $7.99 per month, was briefly rolled out last week. But after a messy launch, which included a flurry of fake accounts impersonating verified users, the initiative was reeled back and scheduled for re-release in late November.

It remains to be seen how many employees choose to leave after Musk’s e-mail. But with half the workforce laid off, the remaining half growing frustrated, and a second rollout of Twitter Blue on the way, HR experts say Musk’s current trajectory leaves much to be desired.

“Twitter is developing its own new culture under Musk,” Walsh said. “But in order to do that, and to make sure that they could get good outcomes from that new culture, he’s going to need to make sure that employees are brought along with it.”


Collin Robisheaux can be reached at collin.robisheaux@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ColRobisheaux.