Twitter employees are confused and concerned after a chaotic week capped by Elon Musk launching a hostile takeover bid for the company.
The ordeal began in late March with a flurry of tweets by the mercurial Tesla CEO that accused Twitter of failing to promote free speech. He also asked his millions of followers if the company needs a tool for users to edit their tweets after posting them, suggested that Twitter should obliterate its core online ad business, and crudely joked that the company should drop the letter “w” from its name.
This week, after rejecting an offer for a board seat, Musk proposed buying the company for $43 billion. Twitter management countered on Friday with a so-called poison pill, a common tactic used by companies planning to rebuff a takeover.
Left in the lurch by all the maneuvering are the nearly 8,000 Twitter employees whose working lives could drastically change under Musk’s ownership. In interviews with several of them, and a survey of nearly 170 others conducted by professional messaging app Blind, a picture has emerged of a frazzled workforce worried that Musk’s unpredictability could destroy the company’s treasured corporate culture.
Twitter has built a reputation for valuing work-life balance, recently characterized by the company’s “focus week,” during which staff were given Monday off plus several more days without nonessential meetings. In contrast, Musk’s portfolio of businesses, including Tesla, SpaceX, and brain-chip startup Neuralink, are known for demanding work environments in which employees are urged to sacrifice their personal lives for the greater good of the company.
“At a glance, Elon Musk doesn’t strike me as a person who cares about the health and happiness of the people working at the companies that he owns,” a Twitter technologist told Fortune.
Like everyone Fortune spoke with, this employee insisted on not being identified for fear of retribution at work. Meanwhile, Fortune did not know the names of the respondents contacted by Blind, which confirmed their employment at Twitter by verifying that they had used a Twitter corporate email address to register.
Twitter workers fear a hostile takeover
Prior to announcing plans to buy Twitter, Blind surveyed Twitter employees on behalf of Fortune about Musk buying more shares of the company. Fifty-one percent of the respondents said they were worried.
One was “concerned with potential policy changes” under Musk, while another noted that “Elon’s vision and Twitter don’t align.” Two other respondents bluntly noted their dismay, saying “he’s a dangerously insane oligarch” and “he’s nuts.”
Multiple Twitter workers also shared their fears of a hostile takeover by Musk, with several pointing to the potential impact to the company’s culture.
“He could turn the working environment into Tesla,” said one Twitter respondent, worried that Musk would impose Tesla’s tough working conditions on Twitter.
One Twitter developer told Fortune that his main concern about Musk buying the company was that the executive would dismantle the company’s online ad business. Musk has suggested as much in his tweets, saying that he would instead make Twitter a subscription service for users, despite the fact that ads accounted for nearly 90% of the company’s revenue in 2021.
“So I don’t know how that would work out,” the Twitter developer said, adding that it “stresses me out.”
Indeed, 68% of surveyed Twitter workers said they disapproved of Musk’s suggested changes to the company’s business strategy. Some feared that it would lead to mass firings.
“We could potentially see the entire ads org get laid off,” wrote a Twitter worker who posted on Blind to fellow employees. The worker continued by pointing out, “Also Elon likes to run his companies lean.”
Twitter declined to comment to Fortune for this article.
Musk could dismantle Twitter’s culture
Under new Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, and his predecessor, Jack Dorsey, Twitter has offered employees a flexible work environment in which employees are free to do their jobs from home. In early April, Agrawal said, “Wherever you feel most productive and creative is where you will work and that includes working from home full-time forever.”
But Twitter employees fear that flexibility will vanish under Musk.
“Everyone who joined Twitter due to their support of remote work feel it’s unlikely that the policy would be maintained if Musk takes over, as he doesn’t seem to support the concept,” said the Twitter technologist.
The employee noted that while remote work is more popular than ever with workers nationwide, due primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on business, “it’s difficult to find a company that supports it vocally and consistently, as opposed to allowing it only for some people, only in some situations.”
As a result, employees hesitate to leave Twitter, but it’s likely some will “start looking now rather than waiting around anxiously for bad news,” the technologist said. And as a Twitter engineer said on Blind, “Life work balance will be gone” under Musk.
“Twitter is one of the best companies, culture-wise,” the Twitter developer told Fortune, explaining how management encourages staff to work hard, but not to the point of exhaustion. For instance, the developer said Twitter advises staff to avoid sending work-related emails from 8:00 p.m. to 9 a.m.
“There’s a lot of small things that prove they care about the employees,” the developer said.
Are there benefits to a Musk-owned Twitter?
Twitter workers who spoke with Fortune and posted on Blind all acknowledged that Twitter has some business problems, characterized by relatively low sales compared to bigger competitors like Facebook-parent Meta. Twitter’s growth has also been sluggish and its stock price today, even with the lift provided by Musk’s interest in the company, is near where it was following its initial public offering nine years ago.
“The only thing that the Twitter CEO needs to ensure is that it does not turn out to be the next Yahoo, but that is unlikely to happen as the current CEO is way smarter than Mayer,” a Twitter employee said on Blind, referring to former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and her rejection of a buyout years ago that was the final nail in that company’s coffin.
But as the Twitter developer told Fortune, Musk’s ambitious thinking could be good, such as catering more to the burgeoning cryptocurrency community that has become particularly vocal on the messaging service. Musk’s opinions about what Twitter should do, like building a tool for people to edit their tweets, aren’t necessarily bad ideas, the developer added.
The problem, however, is that Musk is often vague in his tweets, leaving Twitter workers confused about his true intentions, the developer explained. Taking the company private could be a good thing for Twitter, allowing the company to serve “a higher purpose than revenue,” another Twitter worker told Fortune.
Musk mentioned that possibility during a TED conference interview this week, saying that Twitter could be crucial for a functioning democracy. But some Twitter employees weren’t convinced.
“I also don’t think Elon Musk cares about democracy at all, or else he’d be spending money to help ensure we have secure elections,” the technologist said. “He’d be working to get dark money out of politics, prevent gerrymandering, minimize voter suppression, and limit the influence of lobbyists.”
Musk also mentioned during his TED interview that he would make Twitter’s underlying algorithm open to inspection by the public to reassure people that no one is covertly influencing what they see on the service or what they can say. It’s a strange statement, the Twitter technologist noted, considering that there “isn’t just one algorithm” but rather a “a web of interconnected systems that work together to show tweets to each user.”
Like other apps built on sophisticated machine-learning tools, it’s incredibly difficult for the layman and even A.I. researchers themselves to fully understand how Twitter’s core service functions.
“It’s a slippery slope to open sourcing Twitter’s entire data pipeline, which isn’t worth the effort unless you can fully understand the scale of potential upsides and downsides,” the technologist said.
Twitter executives could be more transparent
Asked how Twitter’s CEO and board have handled the recent events involving Musk, 72% of Twitter employees surveyed through Blind said it’s been “poor.” One Twitter employee noted on Blind that the company’s all-hands meeting with employees this week was vague on details.
“It doesn’t sound like a conclusion is coming soon,” the employee said, based on hearing the generic bureaucratic steps the board plans to take to evaluate Musk’s bid.
“If you want the news, listen to the joy or anger in Elon’s Tweets,” the employee said, suggesting Musk’s tweets are providing more information to workers than Twitter’s own management.
As Bill Klepper, a management professor from Columbia University’s business school, told Fortune, Twitter’s CEO appears to have “crawled into the bunker” with board members who are “trying to figure out how do we deal with [Musk].” Being tight-lipped is bad news for Twitter workers whose anxiety may be escalating because of uncertainty, he argued.
“It’s disorienting to the point that it’s disruptive now,” Klepper said.
“What they’ve got to do is go out there and start talking to their workforce, and by the way, don’t just stop there, go to their stakeholders as a whole,” Klepper said about Twitter executives. “They’ve got to get on the offensive, because right now, Musk is basically, you might say, dominating the news channel.”
Many of those within Twitter still have some confidence with their leadership, however.
One current Twitter employee told Fortune that he “trusts the leadership to make the best decisions.” And the Twitter developer who spoke with Fortune noted, “it would be nice to get more information, but I don’t know what benefit I would get,” a recognition that Musk is unpredictable.
But the mere possibility of Musk controlling Twitter could be enough for workers to start job hunting. If so, it could be a blow to the company and, potentially, to Musk’s plans to re-energize its business.
“Be aware of the fact that with that genius comes a lot of idiosyncratic behavior that might not be the healthiest for your company,” Klepper said about the dilemma Twitter workers face. “In other words, you might grow tremendously as a result of his intervention, but it might not be a company you want to work at anymore.”