Elon Musk, the Twitter celebrity, is not the same as Musk, the boss of SpaceX and Tesla

Elon Musk has millions of critics – and dedicated fans – and nowhere is that clearer than on Twitter. Ever since Musk, who is the richest person in the world and CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Company and Neuralink, announced plans in April to buy the social media company, debate has intensified over whether he is a genius who is saving the world. world or just a crass billionaire with a big platform. And more people, including his own employees, began to raise questions about the increasingly fine line between his Twitter personality and his role as the leader 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 interacts more frequently with right-wing politicians and pundits. In recent months, Musk’s Twitter activity has included posting a meme directed at Twitter exec Vijaya Gadde, disregarding an accusation that he sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant, and mocking the appearance of Bill Gates. The letter focused on Musk’s behavior on Twitter, where he has increasingly spoken out about US policy and his criticism of Democratic Party, which he says has diverted also far to the left.

“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter reads. “As our most prominent CEO and spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every Tweet Elon sends is a public statement of fact from the company.”

The layoffs followed a report by the Verge on Thursday of the letter, which represents the first time such an employee document for Musk has come to light and marks one of the most public concerted actions to date against Musk by employees of one of his companies. companies. Musk already has enormous influence, but now that he’s on his way to owning Twitter, one of the biggest social media platforms in the US, his voice will have even greater reach. It also means that his ability to influence what people say about him is likely to be greater as well. The SpaceX letter, and the subsequent firing of the employees involved with it, shows that there is a growing tension between how Musk presents himself as an individual – albeit a very public individual – and how his employees feel represented, or misrepresented, by their CEO. .

One of the action items proposed by the employees in the letter is to “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful behavior on Twitter” and “quickly and explicitly separate yourself from Elon’s personal brand.”

But SpaceX’s letter isn’t just concerned about Musk’s abrasive “personal brand” on Twitter. The letter’s writers claim that this behavior was “emblematic” of a larger cultural issue at SpaceX. “SpaceX’s current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values,” the letter read. He called on leaders to better promote a workplace culture that values ​​diversity, equity and inclusion.

The companies Musk runs have faced multiple allegations 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 based, for failing to adequately address allegations of workplace abuse. “Tesla has created a toxic workplace culture based on racist and sexist abuse and discrimination against its own employees,” Chau said in the lawsuit.

This follows a February case in which the state of California sued Tesla’s Fremont factory over allegations of racism. The lawsuit represented more than 4,000 former and current black employees who claimed that black workers were segregated into separate parts of the factory. According to interviews conducted by the Los Angeles Times, there was a particularly labor-intensive section of the factory that was dubbed “the plantation” by Tesla workers. One black worker said he heard racial slurs 50 to 100 times a day.

Musk’s companies have also faced allegations of sexual harassment issues in the workplace. In 2021, five former SpaceX employees told The Verge that they faced or witnessed sexual harassment at the company. A former SpaceX engineer, Ashley Kosak, published an essay detailing her experience during her time at the company, where she started as an intern in 2017. “I reported every incident of sexual harassment I experienced to HR, and nothing was done.” she wrote. “Any and every man who harassed me was tolerated despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance and no-idiot policy.”

SpaceX’s “no idiot” policy is well known. President Gwynne Shotwell bragged that the company’s zero tolerance for idiots prevents interruptions, which in turn increases innovation. The open letter written by employees last week stated that, in reality, the company did not comply with this policy.

Musk himself has also been accused of mistreating employees. In May, Business Insider reported an allegation that Musk had sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant, exposing himself to her and offering 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 yet to respond to a question about whether Musk was directly involved in firing the employees, but Musk has a reported record of firing critics; in the book Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century, author Tim Higgins reports several cases of Musk firing 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 a Fantastic Future who said that “the treatment of the team was not good for long periods of time”. The employee remembered some engineers “being blamed for things they didn’t do” and said goodbye. “The kiss of death was proving Elon wrong about something,” the engineer told Vance.

The SpaceX employee’s letter and its aftermath further reveal the dissonance between Elon Musk, the innovative genius, and Elon Musk, the manager. Musk has long commanded respect as a brilliant founder of technology that many believe is pushing humanity forward. If his leadership is a little too bold – even abusive – many seemed to think this could be forgiven given the enormous importance of Tesla and SpaceX’s missions. Musk drew comparisons between his work and philanthropy and said that sending humans to Mars is important for “extend the light of consciousness.

This grandiose 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 conduct and the scandals that have followed are detrimental to that mission. As Musk becomes increasingly divisive on Twitter, a communications platform he intends to own, how can his employees continue to separate the two personalities – social media celebrity and CEO – and do their job without PR distractions? That’s the question some Musk employees seem to be facing right now.

Musk’s employees on Twitter already seem suspicious of their future boss. In a virtual meeting with Twitter employees last Thursday, Musk did not deny the possibility of layoffs following the acquisition. A video of internal Slack messages from employees critically reacting to Musk during the meeting was also leaked on Twitter, with no names edited. Musk responded on Twitter to the leak in one word: “Interesting”.

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