Elon Musk’s Ultimatum To Twitter Employees Ramps Up Company’s Crisis
Commentary from crisis management expert Edward Segal, author of the bestselling and award-winning Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies (Nicholas Brealey, 2020)
Twitter employees were given two days to respond to Elon Musk’s ultimatum to commit to a new “hardcore” company or leave with severance pay. His edict poured more gas on the fire at the social media platform, could have a devastating impact on workers, and raises more questions about the future of the organization, according to HR experts and other observers.
Employees were asked to respond by clicking on an icon if they wanted to stay. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” Musk said in an email to Twitter’s workforce. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
“By mid-Wednesday, members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team—who are responsible for keeping hate speech and misinformation off the site—were discussing a mass resignation, according to three current employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution,” the Washington Post reported.
Coming days after Musk fired thousands of Twitter workers, his latest action is another example of how to make a crisis worse.
Experts shared their observations and predictions of how the ultimatum will affect Twitter’s dwindling workforce and the company.
Keeping Morale Low
“Employee morale at Twitter was already abysmally low; it’s hard to see how this ultimatum does anything but keep it that way,” Nicholas Creel, an assistant professor of business law at Georgia College and State University, said via email.
“What’s more, the hardline stance Musk is taking will practically ensure that anyone applying to work there going forward will have to be prepared to give up hope of much of any personal life, all while accepting that their job security will be in the hands of a mercurial micromanager with outrageous expectations. In other words, the talent pool Musk can now expect to recruit from will be exceedingly small,” he noted.
Lost in the national headlines about the ultimatum was what Musk said about the company’s strategic direction, and perhaps his first words on the subject.
In his message to workers, he said Twitter will “be much more engineering-driven. Design and product management will still be very important and report to me, but those writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway. At its heart, Twitter is a software and servers company, so I think this makes sense.”
‘Drawing A Line In The Sand’
“Asking for commitment is one thing. In this case, you have a guy who is drawing a line in the sand and asking for a blank check,” Mark A. Herschberg, an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You, said via email.
“Leading is about getting followers to commit to a vision. Musk does not have a clear vision outlined, and worse, has a history of being capricious as well as firing detractors. Why should someone commit with no clear upside when the risks of frustration, termination, or overall company failure are high?” he asked.
“When the house is burning, it’s one thing to rally people to take risks to put it out. You’d appeal to a sense of purpose, teamwork, and [a] larger vision. It’s another to say something akin to you damn well better do it my way, or else don’t do it at all with no discussion. My guess is employees who haven’t yet quit or been fired will be updating their resumes and ramping up their job search,” Herschberg concluded.
Not A Free Or Rational Choice
“Moral actions are those that do not violate an individual’s ability to make free and rational choices. At first glance, Musk appears to be giving employees a choice, but it is one that is neither free nor rational,” Sarah Cabral, a senior scholar in business ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said via email.
“It is not free because it is coercive, and it is not rational because the terms are unclear. Employees only have 24 hours to decide their future and no meaningful sense of what the new ‘hardcore’ environment will actually require of them,” she pointed out.
‘A Horrible Idea’
“Trying to bully or coerce employees into assenting to a certain style of work that has not been the norm in the organization is a horrible idea,” Kia Roberts, principal and founder of Triangle Investigations, said via email.
“There is a way that management can and should operate where they identify the levers to pull to increase employee productivity and encourage employees to stay with the organization, but issuing ultimatums is certainly not it,” she counseled.
Encouraging Union Organizing
“I would expect at least two union organizing campaigns to take hold if Musk stays at the helm of Twitter,” Nora Burns, a workplace culture researcher, and former HR executive, said via email.
Musk “is demonstrating the very worst of 1940s leadership strategies while using an international megaphone to spread the word. Unions were at their strongest during the 40s when these manipulative, bullying, and ‘love it or leave it’ techniques were too often applied to the workforce,” she observed.
“Ultimatums have no place in any relationship, and the employment relationship is no exception. Musk seems to have forgotten that Twitter as a whole is a relationship business,” Burns speculated.
Impact On Recruiting
“There will be very little recruiting happening (almost all of the recruiters got let go). The few who join the organization…will be those attracted to Musk’s ‘hardcore’ management philosophy. I predict there will be few takers,” Ron Oltmanns, a leadership coach, and consultant, said via email.
“Leaders in a crisis need to think hard about whether “shock treatment” is really required like what Musk has administered to Twitter. Only in extreme cases is it necessary. Otherwise, you’re taking existing problems and multiplying the troubles, not solving problems,” he noted.
“The best takeaway for business leaders here is to recognize that the first step in managing a self-imposed crisis is to stop doing the thing that got you in trouble, to begin with,” Nicholas Creel, the assistant professor of business law at Georgia College and State University, recommended.
“Musk is doubling down when he ought to be pulling back, so we can probably expect his problems to only get worse from here,” he predicted.
Musk’s Track Record
Longtime observers of Musk’s management style may not be surprised by what he is doing with Twitter or how he is doing it. His track records at the other companies he owns — SpaceX and Tesla — could provide a roadmap for the billionaire’s next moves.
“Musk’s strategy can be characterized by common themes across three areas: what fits into his vision for problems to solve, how he designs an organization as a solution to those problems, and why he can so effectively mobilize resources towards those solutions,” according to the Harvard Business Review.
Edward Segal is a crisis management expert, consultant and the bestselling author of the award-winning Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies (Nicholas Brealey). Click here to Order the book.
Segal is a Leadership Strategy Senior Contributor for Forbes.com where he covers crisis-related news, topics and issues. Click here to read his recent articles.