What Elon Musk and Twitter tell us about employee communications

Sefiani's Therese Raft reflects on what we can learn from Elon Musk and Twitter about what not to do in employee communications.

We give most new CEOs 100 days to make their mark on a company. Elon Musk’s mark can be felt on Twitter in a mere 14 days. I say mark, but it’s a deep, slashing cut. It’s a wound from which Twitter may not recover.

Am I surprised by the steps Musk has taken? No. Musk has always been outspoken about his views on remote work, flexibility and what he expects from his workers. He’s faced legal action more than once for the labour laws he’s allegedly breached over the years. Musk is nothing if not consistent in his views and his actions.

What I am surprised by, is that he has gotten away with this particular style of leadership for so long. However, I think his new role at Twitter may be a bigger mouthful than Musk can chew.

This is not a company he has built from scratch or brought into the light from obscurity. Musk has taken a behemoth of a brand synonymous with the democratisation of information and the breaking down of invisible walls and – without consultation and seemingly with little thought – commenced dramatic change.

From an employee communications perspective, there may as well be neon arrows and red sirens every time a new piece of information is revealed. “Look over here! And don’t replicate.”

While the whole saga is, in and of itself, fascinating – the singularity of each action, taken in isolation, could easily be something any organisation gets wrong. We are watching poor decisions made in quick succession. And it’s a lesson in how egregiously wrong communications can be when company drivers are outcomes-focused, not people-focused.

Let’s start with the approximately 3,700 people – nearly half of Twitter’s workforce – that were made redundant without notice.

The market is revealing itself as unkind, and the tech wreck is nothing new. Meta, Lyft, Stripe, and Linktree have all had to make cuts. Companies looking at their bottom line must assess how current roles function in a future – and leaner – business. Unfortunately, sometimes that means saying goodbye to good people – colleagues and friends.

However, labour laws and HR policies mean that individuals should not learn about their redundancy by impersonal email and then be denied access to their systems. Or, as in the case of at least one Twitter contractor, reading about the redundancies on Twitter and then trying to log on to their systems to find everything was gone.

Whole teams were informed at once that their roles were no longer required. Teams that protected Twitter users, improved accessibility and helped to sort fact from fiction. And when The Verge, an online technology publication based out of America, reached out to Musk for comment, they learned Twitter no longer had a communications department.

Without a communications team, I’d ask who is reassuring remaining employees, users, advertisers, government, and other interested stakeholders about the future of Twitter – however, we can see from Musk’s own Twitter activity that he has taken this role upon himself. And it’s not exactly reassuring.

Were the redundancies necessary? Perhaps. Not that we’re interested in hearing that particular storyline. There is little sympathy or empathy for the business leader who exhibits so little compassion or empathy.

Now we turn to the people left behind. Their world looks very different to how it did less than a month ago. Yet, once again – we see some parallel pressures organisations may also be feeling.

For instance, many organisations want their people back in the office; if not full-time, then at least part-time. In Twitter’s version of events, they made a blanket demand and expected everyone to comply within a matter of days. This includes people who made major life decisions to move in response to remote working opportunities, people with caring responsibilities or other special needs.

Research has found again and again that employees value work-life balance over salary in a post-pandemic world. How many people will Musk keep with his new edict? Not as many as he thinks. Even senior executives are jumping ship amidst the turmoil. This includes longtime HR leader Kathleen Pacini.

Of course, there was a minor backtrack played out on Twitter that remote working is possible under the right circumstances. Musk said in a 13 November tweet that a manager could ‘vouch for excellence’ for remote workers. Ah, but read the fine print! Upon querying what would happen if excellence wasn’t forthcoming, Musk acknowledged that the manager would be fired.

While Twitter feeds provide a glimpse into the employee experience, it’s difficult to know precisely what is happening. We can safely assume that people are uncertain in the absence of trusted leadership, and the current method of communicating in bite-sized snippets of information and retorts to individuals is entrenching the sense that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

If Twitter survives – and Musk has already stated bankruptcy is a possibility – they may want to rehire some of the people, they let go. They will undoubtedly need to hire new people over time.

Unfortunately, people have long memories of short-term tactics like Musk’s. Had he taken the time to slow down, contemplate the next moves and communicate with empathy, he could have achieved similar outcomes. It would have happened over a longer timescale, but it would have paid reputational dividends into the future.

Because when the tech wreck invariably reverses itself and tech specialists have more choice about where they work – why on earth would they choose to work at Twitter?

Therese Raft, employee communications and engagement practice lead, Sefiani


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