Elon Musk has millions of detractors – and devoted fans – and nowhere is that more evident than on Twitter. Ever since Musk, the world’s richest person and CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company and Neuralink, announced plans to buy the social media company in April, debate has intensified as to whether he’s a genius capable of… saves the world, or just a badass billionaire with a big platform. And more and more people, including his own employees, have begun asking questions about the increasingly blurred line between his Twitter persona and his role as head of several large companies.
Last Thursday, SpaceX reportedly fired at least five employees involved in writing a letter to company executives condemning Musk’s recent behavior — particularly on Twitter, where he has frequently interacted with right-wing politicians and pundits. In recent months, Musk’s Twitter activity has included posting a meme targeting Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde. to take an accusation lightly that he had sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant, and Mockery of Bill Gates’ performance. The letter focused on Musk’s behavior on Twitter, where he has been increasingly vocal about US politics and his criticism of US politics Democratic Party, which he says has defected to far left.
“Elon’s public behavior is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter said. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every tweet Elon sends is a de facto public statement from the company.”
The firings follow a Verge report Thursday on the letter, marking the first time such a document has surfaced from employees to Musk and one of the most public concerted actions by employees at one of his companies against Musk to date. Musk already has tremendous influence, but now that he’s on his way to owning Twitter, one of the largest social media platforms in the US, his voice will have even greater reach. It also means his ability to influence what people say about him will likely be greater too. The SpaceX letter and the subsequent firing of the employees involved show that there is a growing tension between the way Musk presents himself as an individual – albeit a very public figure – and how his employees represent themselves from their CEO or feel misrepresented.
One of the actions suggested by staff in the letter is to “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter conduct” and “quickly and explicitly disassociate from Elon’s personal brand.”
But the SpaceX letter isn’t just about Musk’s aggressive “personal brand” on Twitter. The letter writers claim that this behavior is “emblematic” of a larger culture issue at SpaceX. “SpaceX’s current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values,” the letter said. It called on leaders to promote a workplace culture that values diversity, equity and inclusion.
The companies Musk runs have been accused on numerous occasions of promoting an unhealthy or even abusive work environment. On Thursday, Tesla investor Solomon Chau filed a lawsuit against Tesla in Texas, where the company is headquartered, for failing to adequately investigate allegations of workplace abuse. “Tesla has created a toxic workplace culture based on racial and sexist abuse and discrimination against its own employees,” Chau said in the lawsuit.
That follows a February case in which the state of California sued Tesla’s Fremont factory over allegations of racism. The lawsuit represented over 4,000 former and current black workers alleging that black workers were segregated into separate parts of the factory. According to Los Angeles Times interviews, there was a particularly labor-intensive part of the plant that Tesla workers nicknamed the “plantation.” A black worker said he heard racial slurs 50 to 100 times a day.
Musk’s companies have also faced allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 2021, five former SpaceX employees told The Verge they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at the company. A former SpaceX engineer, Ashley Kosak, published an essay detailing her experiences during her time at the company, where she started as an intern in 2017. She wrote. “Every single man who harassed me was tolerated, despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance, no-asshole policy.”
SpaceX’s “no asshole” policy is well known. President Gwynne Shotwell has boasted that the company’s zero tolerance for assholes prevents disruptions, which in turn fosters innovation. In the open letter written by employees last week, the company claimed that in reality the company does not live up to this policy.
Musk himself is also accused of abusing employees. In May, Business Insider reported an allegation that Musk sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant, embarrassing himself to her and offering to buy her a horse in exchange for an “erotic massage.” After the report surfaced, Musk joked about it on Twitter.
Now five SpaceX employees have lost their jobs after criticizing their CEO’s leadership. SpaceX has not yet responded to a question as to whether Musk was directly involved in firing employees, but Musk has a reported history of firing critics; in the book Power play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the bet of the century, author Tim Higgins reports several instances where Musk has fired his employees in moments of anger, including people who disagreed with him. Bloomberg reporter and Musk biographer Ashlee Vance quoted a SpaceX engineer in her book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the quest for an amazing future who said that “the treatment of staff was not good for much of that era”. The clerk recalled that some engineers were “blamed for things they didn’t do” and fired. “The kiss of death proved Elon wrong,” the engineer said to Vance.
SpaceX’s employee letter and its aftermath reveal the dissonance between Elon Musk, the innovator genius, and Elon Musk, the manager. Musk has long been respected as a brilliant tech founder who many believe is driving humanity forward. If his leadership is a little brash — even abusive — many seemed to think that could be forgiven given the sheer importance of Tesla and SpaceX’s missions. Musk has drawn comparisons between his work and philanthropy, saying it’s important to send people to Mars to “Expand the Light of Consciousness.”
This larger-than-life vision of Musk and his companies has often attracted people to work for him. But as some of his SpaceX employees have made clear, his recent behavior and the scandals that have followed are detrimental to that mission. As Musk becomes increasingly divisive on Twitter, a communications platform he aspires to own, how can his staff continue to separate the two personas – social media celebrity and CEO – and get their jobs done without PR distractions? That’s the question some of Musk’s employees seem to be grappling with right now.
Musk’s employees at Twitter already seem to be wary of their future boss. In a virtual meeting with Twitter employees last Thursday, Musk didn’t want to deny the possibility of layoffs following the acquisition. A video of internal Slack messages from employees reacting critically to Musk during the meeting was also posted to Twitter, with no names redacted. musk responded to the leak on Twitter in a word: “interesting”.