Last week Elon Musk sent out his “Fork in the Road” message to his employees, giving them a deadline to click on a link and sign up to a new, “extremely hardcore”, way of working at Twitter. For those who stayed this would purportedly mean working long hours at high intensity.
As my colleague, Sophie Clifford, set out in her LinkedIn posts about this last week, Elon’s “Fork in the Road” message appeared to be dismissive of employment law rights (in the UK at the very least). It is hard to see how those who might be managing responsibilities, other than their jobs at Twitter, would be able to comply with the blanket rule to work in this “extremely hardcore” way. Longer hours probably meant that many working parents (most likely in the main working mothers) were not able to comply with Twitter’s new hardcore working requirements. People managing disabilities may have suddenly found that their reasonable adjustments, which levelled the playing field for them in the workplace, were no longer compatible with Elon’s vision for Twitter. For these people, intended or not, the underlying message was loud and clear, you are no longer welcome employees at Twitter.
The “Fork in the Road” message placed value on working long arduous hours. Some of you reading this might think that this makes sound business sense. This is good value surely? Employees work harder for, presumably, the same pay? This is commitment, right? In my experience as an employment lawyer and as a facilitator running sessions on workplace respect and managing within the law, this will be none of those things.
In addition, the message outlines which employees will have the most sway within the organisation; creating a hierarchy of importance amongst employees is never a good way to create a collaborative and happy workforce. My prediction for Twitter is that a toxic culture is likely to take hold and grow fast - which inevitably ends in a high turnover of staff, litigation or more likely both!
Whether people leave because they are unhappy or are simply using Twitter as a stepping-stone to better things, most people rarely stay where burnout is on the horizon. During my legal career I have acted for many dedicated professionals in similar environments who eventually experienced burnout. The damage to those individuals was substantial and long-term. We are, after all, human - with emotions, personal lives and limits. Beware the employer who thinks your limits exist solely for them!
But my concerns for the employees of Twitter do not end there. Earlier this week, relating to his decision to reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account, Elon Musk shared a clearly sexual meme where the female in the picture represented Twitter and the male represented Donald Trump. When I saw this meme, I could not help but wonder how Twitter’s workforce, and in particular Twitter’s female employees would have felt, seeing their CEO posting a meme of that nature. Could a lads club culture be part of Twitter 2.0? Endorsed from the very top! How many women would feel that they were in a safe working environment? I wonder if the meme will find its way into a litigation bundle for a sex discrimination/ harassment claim?
Last week my colleague Matt Dean wrote about the impact of toxic cultures, with Elon’s Fork in the Road message being a clear signal of things to come at Twitter. Even if this is staged posturing from Elon, a bit of controversy to get people on to the platform, Elon is a culture carrier at Twitter, and these memes and messages from the top will eventually have the unavoidable impact of creating a toxic work culture.
In my view, those who bankroll businesses do not always make the best people leaders. I have heard people talk about how intelligent Elon is, how successful he is and what he has achieved. But being intelligent and/or business smart does not make you people smart. Intelligent leaders know this. They know their strengths and weaknesses and do not assume that they are always the right person for every aspect of their business. To be a leader of people, you need to be inclusive, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent. Furthermore, a good people leader knows the importance of having a working environment where people feel safe to speak up, where people respect one another, and where wellbeing is supported and championed. A good people leader knows that this will create an environment were people give their very best because they want to and because they are invested in a company that recognises them and sees them for their individual contribution. As set out in the statement from Byrne Dean on this topic managing employees through a climate of fear never ends well.
All that said, so what? Elon is one of the richest men in the world. Even if he does face litigation he can afford to fight or settle anything that comes his way. So why would he care? Well, any business the size of Twitter cannot operate without its staff. It is a foolish business leader who does not recognise that the people that work for the company are its greatest asset. A high turnover of staff eventually bites into profits and the quality of the business. If Twitter becomes a revolving door for most, each time someone leaves, their experience and the value they bring to the organisation leaves with them. The next person will take time to build this up, even if they are working “extremely hardcore”, and if they are doing that, it probably won’t be long before they leave.
My fear is that the working environment at Twitter may be emotionally and physically damaging for some and, for those able to survive it, they will take many painful steps back in time in respect of workplace culture. Let’s hope Elon passes on the people management baton at Twitter to someone better suited to the task.