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Elon Musk’s Twitter bid frustrates employees. That’s a risk for him.

Inside the social media giant, employees say Musk’s takeover proposal is problematic, posing a liability for the billionaire

Twitter’s offices in San Francisco in 2020. (Winni Wintermeyer for The Washington Post)

As news of Elon Musk’s hostile takeover bid spread throughout Twitter this week, employees expressed concern that their workplaces might suffer under the leadership of the incendiary tech mogul, as well as exhaustion over the company’s uncertain future.

In recent weeks, Musk has mocked Twitter on the social network, reduced major company decisions to polls for his roughly 80 million followers — and disrupted the company’s “focus week,” when it reduces unnecessary meetings to give employees time to concentrate on their projects, with news of his takeover on Thursday.

That afternoon, Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal held a companywide meeting to reassure his workforce of 7,500 full-time employees by arguing that one man could not change a culture and that it was up to the company to set strategy, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The reputation Musk has built for himself, in part through the trolling he engages in on Twitter, is emerging as a liability among the social media company’s employees. Twitter is known for its liberal workforce and flexible work environment. Musk, on the other hand, has appeared to mock gender pronouns, has peddled coronavirus misinformation, and his company Tesla has been the target of multiple lawsuits for alleged racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

Employee discontent could factor into the decision facing Twitter’s board as it weighs Musk’s offer that values the company at $43 billion and would take it private. In addition to evaluating the financial details of Musk’s bid, the board members will probably consider Musk’s potential leadership chops as the company grapples with significant business and political challenges.

On Friday, Twitter mounted an aggressive defense against Musk’s hostile takeover bid by adopting a plan known as a “poison pill” in an effort to retain control over the sprawling social network. Twitter’s strategy would effectively allow shareholders other than Musk to buy additional stock at a discounted price, flooding the market with shares that would then trade at a premium. The plan would make it difficult for Musk to amass a higher stake in the company without spending significantly more money.

Billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, offered on April 13 to buy Twitter for $54.20 a share. (Video: Reuters)

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Employee reactions to the poison pill news ranged from exasperation regarding the company’s uncertain future to pure glee over Twitter’s willingness to wage a fight against the tech billionaire, according to employee tweets and one of the people.

Twitter’s Agrawal, who only took over as CEO in December, ended up in the uncomfortable position of answering for employee criticism of Musk at Thursday’s all-hands meeting. He addressed a wide range of questions from Twitter workers about Musk’s offer to buy the company, including about how people of color are treated at his company Tesla and the billionaire’s staunch support for free speech on social media. Others asked for employee representation on the board and about what would happen to Twitter employees’ restricted stock units if the company was taken private, the people said.

Some walked away disappointed with Agrawal’s assurances, saying it felt like empty words.

“Clearly people are frustrated that employees seem to be an afterthought,” one said.

Twitter employees faced a whirlwind month as Musk first took a massive stake in the company, then agreed to join the board, then left before he joined. The news this week that Musk made an offer to take the company private sent shivers through the workforce, which was already concerned about his leadership style.

Elon Musk says he has backup plan to buy Twitter in TED interview

“Musk taking over Twitter would be a nightmare for many employees that have worked under the Dorsey and Twitter regime,” said Daniel Ives, managing director and senior equity research analyst at financial services firm Wedbush Securities, referring to the company’s former CEO Jack Dorsey. “I would expect a flood of résumés to hit, if Musk eventually takes over Twitter. And I think there’s a major shake-up that’s going to happen there one way or another.”

Twitter declined to comment. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

During a TED Talk Thursday in Vancouver, Musk said he would err on the side of free speech. “I do think that we want to be just very reluctant to delete things and … just be very cautious with permanent bans,” he said, adding that he would prefer timeouts.

Last week, Musk revealed he had purchased a more than 9 percent stake in Twitter, and the next day, Agrawal announced Musk would be joining the board. On Sunday evening, Agrawal made a subsequent announcement saying Musk had declined the seat.

Even before his takeover bid, some Twitter employees struggled last week to support Musk’s involvement in the company because they said his values appeared to be in contradiction with the company, according to internal messages viewed by The Washington Post. Several employees noted in internal messages that Musk, who considers himself to be a champion of free speech, has appeared to express disdain for the use of gender pronouns.

“We know that he has caused harm to workers, the trans community, women and others with less power in the world,” one employee asked. “How are we going to reconcile this decision with our values? Does innovation trump humanity?”

When Musk was still going to join the board, Agrawal said he would hold a town hall with Musk so employees could ask them questions.

Adding to Twitter employees’ consternation, the takeover bid came in the middle of the company’s “focus week,” when it reduces unnecessary meetings to give employees time to concentrate on their projects, following a “day of rest” on Monday when everyone gets off.

Musk launches hostile takeover bid for Twitter

On Thursday, another worker called Musk’s behavior bullying in a tweet. “ ‘Titter’ is currently trending because he decided — like a playground bully pandering to his fanboy lackeys — to make a joke at Twitter’s expense,” the employee wrote. “And, we all know the joke is not really the point. Humiliation is.”

Tesla’s factory in the Bay Area has been dogged with accusations of worker mistreatment, labor rights violations, racism and sexual harassment. The factory, which hosts more than 20,000 workers, according to Tesla, is the company’s busiest production plant, where it builds its Model 3, Y, S and X vehicles.

California’s workplace regulator sued Tesla in February alleging pervasive racial discrimination, saying it had received hundreds of complaints from workers in regard to its Fremont, Calif., plant. In a separate suit, Tesla was ordered to pay millions to a former elevator operator who alleged a hostile work environment and racial harassment. And multiple women have filed sexual harassment complaints against Tesla alleging they were subjected to lewd comments, catcalling, inappropriate touching and discrimination at its facilities.

Tesla has denied fostering a culture of racism and harassment, and has sought to have some of the suits moved to arbitration so that the matters are handled outside of court.

California sues Tesla, alleging racial discrimination and harassment

The Fremont plant also became the site of controversy in early 2020, when Musk defiantly reopened the factory despite county-level shelter-in-place orders that would have prevented workers from being on the job. Musk promised workers could stay at home if they felt uneasy. The Post later reported that some workers received termination notices despite that policy.

Tesla employees who spoke with The Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said they are afraid to publicize their opinions, in part because a fellow employee was fired this year after posting videos of the company’s “Full Self-Driving” software to YouTube. Those clips were later analyzed by The Post.

“These [workers] are really, really scared,” said one worker at a Tesla factory, who said they fear incurring the wrath of Musk himself. “He rules with an authoritarian fist.”

Beyond being CEO at both Tesla and SpaceX, Musk also founded tunneling firm the Boring Co. and Neuralink, which seeks to implant computer chips in people’s brains.

If the takeover is successful, Musk would inherit a company that has been racing to grow its userbase and revenue after years of lackluster financial performance. Twitter is the smaller peer of social media competitors such as Facebook and TikTok — both of which have amassed more than a billion users — and it has faced problems of declining user growth and concerns about monetization. Twitter has an estimated 217 million daily users by comparison.

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Twitter is known to move slowly in releasing new products and features. After activist investor Elliott Management took a stake in the company in 2020, Twitter set several ambitious goals for user and revenue growth by the end of 2023.

And the company recently went through a major leadership change. In December, Agrawal, who spent four years as chief technology officer, succeeded Dorsey as chief executive. Dorsey had also served as CEO of both Twitter and the online payments company Square, which had elicited criticism from investors that his time was too divided.

In a surprise tweet, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he’s stepping down

“Could you foresee a scenario where if he does take it over, he will make changes to the management team?” asked Mark Shmulik, a managing director at research firm AllianceBernstein. “It certainly looks that way but [it’s] hard to say.”

Twitter has been investing in new products such as its audio chatroom feature Twitter Spaces, which was meant to compete with the upstart Clubhouse. Musk has already hinted that he thinks there could be changes made to Twitter Blue, the company’s new subscription service that gives paying customers special features including the freedom to rescind tweets.

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Conflicts could arise with employees if Musk took over and effectively said: “Stop what you’re currently doing. This is what I want you to focus on,” Shmulik said.

Prompting more employee angst is the potential that Musk could change the way the company treats political content that may violate its rules around hate speech, harassment and threats.

In the past, Twitter has been willing to go further than its social media peers to punish political leaders for breaking its terms. Twitter also took the unprecedented move to permanently ban former president Donald Trump over his role in stoking the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol last year, prompting backlash from conservatives that the company was stifling their viewpoints.

At the TED conference Thursday, Musk said free speech means allowing others to voice opinions you disagree with.

It’s “annoying when someone you don’t like says something you don’t like,” he said. “That is a sign of a healthy, functioning free-speech situation.”

The tech CEO said in a letter to Twitter Chairman Bret Taylor that he believes the company has the “potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe” — something he considered to be critical to a well-functioning democracy.

He thinks “the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

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