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Twitter workers face a reality they’ve long feared: Elon Musk as owner

Employees reacted with shock and dismay on Monday as Musk’s $44 billion takeover bid went through

Twitter accepted a $44 billion takeover offer from Elon Musk on April 25. Why did he want to buy the social media giant? (Video: Hadley Green, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Elon Musk — the world’s richest man and self-proclaimed free speech defender — just bought Twitter. But he may lose its workforce in the process.

On Twitter, in interviews and in internal company messages, workers at the San Francisco-based company — most of whom are remote — said they feared widespread demoralization and layoffs. Some employees were already looking for the exits, something that could create chaos for Twitter users in the coming months. But the heralded entrepreneur is a draw to potential recruits — he’s been able to poach top talent to both Tesla and SpaceX, and other people outside Twitter are likely to be drawn to work for him.

But management experts pointed out that a company with staffing shortages or broad resistance from its workforce would be dysfunctional, at least in the near term, and that Musk — who has no experience running companies that moderate content — would greatly need the expertise of people who have done so.

“Twitter’s best asset was the badge of honor that they carried by working at Twitter, and a mass exodus would exacerbate the perishable nature of that asset,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Lester Crown professor in the practice of management at the Yale School of Management and senior associate dean for leadership studies. “There was once MySpace, and there was once AOL. These companies can die off if people run out the door. There’s nothing at Twitter but the people.”

Employees familiar with Musk’s record who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution say the billionaire businessman, who has promoted coronavirus misinformation and criticized Twitter’s decisions to permanently ban people and accounts that broke its rules, will probably prefer to mold the company to his vision. They expect he may replace the current leadership. Musk’s own companies have been marked by turnover due to his harsh management style, and he has shown a willingness to fire or push out employees who disagree with him.

On Tuesday, Musk added to his criticisms of Twitter and gave some clues to how he would manage his public presence while running the social site. He tweeted that the company was “inappropriate” in suspending the account of a news organization for publishing a truthful story. Musk’s tweet was an incorrect reference to an action Twitter took, then reversed, during the 2020 presidential election, when the company temporarily blocked a New York Post story that it feared violated a policy against posting hacked materials. The company did not suspend the entire news organization but did prevent it from tweeting for a period of time.

Executives have told workers that they believe Musk, who is CEO of rocket company SpaceX and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, has a singular ability to unlock the company’s potential and bring a spirit of innovation to the social media service, which has never achieved the scale or profits of larger rivals Facebook and YouTube.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s recently departed co-founder, also chimed in on Twitter on Monday night, saying: “Elon is the singular solution I trust.” He added that Twitter was “the closest thing we have to a global consciousness” and that he “trusted Musk’s mission to extend the light of consciousness.”

Twitter declined to comment.

To many observers and employees, Musk’s acquisition bid looked unlikely at first. He didn’t appear to have enough funds to make the offer on his own, and Twitter’s board appeared to attempt to derail the deal. But in recent days, Musk said he secured the needed $44 billion financing through loans, and on Monday, the company announced in a news release that the acquisition had gone through. The acquisition, which would rank among the largest-ever activist takeovers of a publicly traded company, would take the company private over the course of three to six months.

Some employees told The Post that they were still too shocked by the news to speak. Others spent Monday and Tuesday posting crying emoji, memes of people having nervous breakdowns, and emotional messages in support of colleagues and their teams. They expressed frustrations over the lack of answers from management about how the company might ride out the transition to becoming private.

“Some of the best talent from Facebook and Google came to Twitter because of Twitter’s willingness to experiment, try new things and stand on principles in a way that other companies wouldn’t,” said Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s former head of communications. “I hope [Musk] continues to empower them, and not scare them out or force them out.”

Others expressed interest in joining. Nikita Bier, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sold his company to Facebook, tweeted at Musk on Monday looking for a job.

“@elonmusk Hire me to run Twitter as VP of Product,” he tweeted. “I’ve been building social apps for 11 years—and not in a way that leads products to decay like a typical BigTech ‘product director dad.’ ”

Bier did not respond to a request for comment.

Musk’s involvement in Twitter, which began this month when he made public that he had acquired a large stake in the company, had already produced outcries from employees. In dozens of internal messages obtained by The Post, workers expressed worries that the firebrand Musk could inflict damage to the company’s culture and make it harder for people to do their jobs. Observers and misinformation researchers echoed the criticism.

The company, which has more than 5,000 employees, has spent years building a progressive corporate culture that allows employees to say just about anything they want and to live anywhere they choose. Twitter was the first company to take action against former president Donald Trump for his tweets supporting Capitol rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, and engineering teams have spent years building tools to fight spam, disinformation and hate speech under an initiative known as healthy conversations.

“I don’t know any non-engineer who works on health issues who sees how this helps,” said a Twitter employee in an interview about Musk, referring to the company’s health division that enforces rules against harmful content such as hate speech and misinformation. “Most find it dispiriting.”

Musk, on the other hand, has used his Twitter account — which has more than 84 million followers — to champion free speech and question content moderation decisions such as the banning of Trump, and he has appeared to mock gender pronouns. He has also been known as an obstinate and demanding manager who will seek to fire people on the spot when they are not onboard with his way of thinking, including at one point disbanding his entire public relations team. Tesla lost three general counsels in one year, according to CNBC.

And Musk has shown a willingness to risk letting employees walk, particularly when he reopened Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., manufacturing plant against county-level shelter-in-place orders in May 2020. Tesla’s policies allowed for workers to remain at home on unpaid leave, and many did so — opting to protect family members with comorbidities or themselves from exposure to the coronavirus. They received termination notices for “failure to return to work” soon after.

If “you feel uncomfortable coming back to work at this time, please do not feel obligated to do so,” Musk had said. But some said they had little choice but to leave Tesla because of the policies.

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, along with the company’s board chair, Bret Taylor, held an internal town hall on Monday afternoon in which the leaders tried to assure anxious staff but offered few direct answers. Employees repeatedly asked Agrawal how the company would handle an exodus of employees who are deeply concerned about Musk’s management style as well as changes to the products and culture, according to audio obtained by The Post. A central concern was that Musk would attempt to break down safeguards to protect everyday users that staff had built over many years.

While Agrawal said there would be no immediate layoffs, he didn’t respond to questions about future ones. He was vague in his answers about changes to the company’s approach to free speech and safety, and even whether the company will continue to make money from advertising. He didn’t address questions about whether Trump would be allowed to return to the platform.

Employees asked how Twitter would protect the diversity of its staff, noting that Musk had been subject to discrimination lawsuits in the past. Others asked how staff would be protected, given his history of retaliating against workers.

At times, Twitter’s leadership, including Taylor, appeared unclear about Musk’s intentions.

Agrawal said leadership “will continue to spend time with Elon to learn more, and as we learn more, we will share it with you.” He also said his team would seek to better understand what Musk’s “aspirations and ambitions might be” so that executives could figure out how to “best collaborate” with the new owner.

Employees appeared unsatisfied, according to chats during the town hall that an employee described to The Post.

“Totally understand that this is entertainment for some,” one employee tweeted. “But please understand that this is certainly not entertainment for me.”

“The news today is so crazy I literally forgot I have COVID,” another tweeted.

Not all employees were pessimistic about Musk’s arrival.

“Elon did not tie up 20 percent of his net worth to destroy Twitter,” a Twitter employee told The Post, noting that the company was behind its peers on many fronts. “I personally think a change like this may be what Twitter needs.” The employee described being “cautiously optimistic” about Musk.

The company also said it would prevent employees from making any changes to Twitter’s service until Friday, according to Bloomberg News, a move that could keep employees from retaliating by doing damage to Musk’s Twitter account.

The concern has precedent: Years ago, a Twitter employee temporarily took down Trump’s account.

Faiz Siddiqui and Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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