3 things we can learn from Elon Musk about employee value propositions

Branding, Communications, Digital, Ruth Callaghan, Social Media

Ruth Callaghan 18 Nov 2022
5 mins

The online comments are the kinds of things any employer would love to hear about their business and their culture.

“A privilege working with you all.”

“The most incredibly rewarding journey with the most talented and supportive co-workers.”

“The fun, the love, warmth and kindness within and surrounding this company.”

“Co-workers turned into family and clients turned into trusted partners and friends.

“I wouldn’t change this experience for the world.”

But of course, they aren’t the world’s best employer champions — they are the sacked, the resigning and the disheartened former workers with Twitter, a place that once proudly ran under the tagline #LoveWhereYouWork.

Everything for Twitter is now split between BE and AE.

There’s the past tense, Before Elon, and whatever we have now: a place he calls Twitter 2.0 and where #LoveWhereYouWorked trends on the app built by the people now leaving.

At the time of writing this, the word is that Twitter has shut physical access to offices and is trying to figure out which employees are actually left after Musk issued yet another morale-boosting edict that seems to have stripped employee numbers to the bone.

Even the Tweets for this article, which we normally hyperlink, are screenshots as there’s no guarantee the site will stand up as long as it takes to publish.

The precipitating letter — or a copy of it — is below.

Issued late Wednesday night in the US, and giving just a day to respond, it calls for a “hardcore” team to hit a button and sign up for  Twitter 2.0 (reportedly the email also included a note “this is not a phishing attack”).

Anyone not sufficiently hardcore to sign up for an overhaul of working conditions, the end of remote working flexibility, a system in which managers could summarily be fired for lobbying for better working conditions … well, you were out on your ear.

Not surprisingly, many employees decided it was time to go, leaving with an emoji salute.

Hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, have walked, with the office Slack thread filled with eulogies and goodbyes.

If you were deliberately seeking to destroy a platform that has been instrumental in every major social movement of the past decade, you could barely go about this more effectively.

But politics aside, the corporate choices made by the world’s richest man will rewrite MBA case studies for years and this is one of them — can you improve a business by gutting its culture?

And is this an approach that will help you attract the best talent in the world?

Right now, the answer is no.

Here are three lessons from this exercise

Firstly, creating a culture of distrust is corrosive.

Despite his claims that Twitter should be a beacon for free speech, Musk is extraordinarily thin-skinned.

There have been reports for the past month of employees sacked on the spot for questioning decisions on the Twitter Slack Channel or for private, locked account tweets that were seen as critical of the CEO.

For a company that until recently encouraged employees to challenge the status quo, present their own ideas, and question authority, that’s a shock.

Even the Twitter 2.0 directive prompted internal debate over whether Musk would pull an old trick of his — using Unicode and different spacing between sentences to create a ‘signature’ for each email, so that any leakers could be hunted down.

The lesson here is that your employees might be silent, but if that’s because they fear retribution for speaking out you have already lost.

Secondly, even those who might want to stay with you begin to question if it is worth it when you pull a stunt like this.

Tweeps were reportedly debating whether the time it took to hit the button to sign up to Team Hardcore might be tracked and — if so — whether penalties might be applied for those who delayed.

Would those who waited to the end of the 24-hour window be fired anyway? Downgraded?

Those who have decided to stay have often other motivations, including that they are on visas or inextricably forced to remain employed by the US health insurance system.

There may be a few hardcore hardcorers, but many will be hardcore by circumstance not commitment. These few will be looking as rapidly as possible for a safe exit.

The third lesson is that crappy culture is contagious.

While Twitter is the focus for the moment, tech businesses across the globe are also in the spotlight, as falling share prices and revised profit statements take the shine off the tech sector.

It all feels a little dot-commy out there, and as Facebook sheds staff, Amazon rightsizes, and Slack cuts back, the unicorn herd is nervous.

For workers at US tech giants, accustomed to being lauded and pursued for their talent, it’s an uncomfortable moment.

The employer promise of playgrounds and in-house chefs had already become redundant as remote working became the norm. An EVP based around working harder for less to do the job of those already let go becomes an even harder sell.

For employers looking at the implosion of what has often been named the best tech employer in the world, the past week has been a masterclass in what not to do.

And it is a salient reminder — if your employees hate your culture and can’t see your employer value, it’s a fair bet investors, users and other stakeholders will lose faith as well.

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Ruth Callaghan More from author

Ruth uses two decades of experience as a media strategist, communications adviser and journalist to develop, deliver and distribute messages that cut through.

She specialises in providing strategic digital and content services for clients, using the principles of newsworthy and engaging content to tell compelling stories. She is a skilled media trainer and works with professionals both within and outside the communications industry to develop their digital, writing and media skills.

Ruth’s work in this field has included developing digital and inbound marketing strategies for clients, including use of lead generation software, content marketing and social media. She works with emerging technologies including virtual reality in campaigns and continues to write for publications including the Australian Financial Review.

When not distracted by the next shiny digital tool, Ruth likes to holiday in cooler climates with her family or hang out with her stubborn Scottish Terrier Maisie.

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