On Friday 4 November, thousands of Twitter employees were laid off, and a lawsuit in California has already been filed against illegal dismissal. The company is considering job cuts also in Europe.
It had been widely reported that Elon Musk, the new owner of the platform, planned to slash the company's 7,500-person payroll after he finalized his $44 billion acquisition two weeks ago. Upon taking over the company, he immediately dismissed CEO Parag Agrawal, as well as Twitter’s chief financial officer and its head of legal, public policy and trust and safety. To run the show, Musk imported an inner circle of advisors from his other companies Tesla, the Boring Company, Neuralink and his personal life.
By Friday morning, news of layoffs spread fast after Twitter employees discovered they were locked out of their laptops before they were even told that their jobs were eliminated, including one employee who is 8-months pregnant. Former senior engineer Joan Deitchman wrote on the platform that its unit dedicated to improving transparency around automated algorithms had been completely disbanded. There are also reports of the sacking of Twitter’s entire human rights team and all but two of the ethical AI team. It prompted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk to issue an open letter urging Musk to ‘ensure human rights are central to the management of Twitter’ under the new leadership.
In Dublin, Twitter’s European headquarters, employees have described the situation as ‘carnage’ where layoffs are ‘random and indiscriminate’. A former Twitter executive based in the United Kingdom told POLITICO that people were sharing frantic WhatsApp messages with colleagues, trying to garner the latest information about who had been fired — and who was still at the company. In fact, Musk’s new leadership had given employees ‘zero communication’ about whose jobs would be at risk, according to another Twitter employee who found themselves out of a job on Friday morning.
In the run up to the layoffs, Twitter employees described Hunger Games-like working conditions. Many workers decided to work through the weekend in hope of keeping their job, while others were explicitly told to complete ‘work sprints’ over the week-end – a time-boxed period when a team have to complete a set amount of work. Meanwhile, vice presidents undertook stack ranking of their departments and compiled lists for Musk and his team of who to keep on at the company. According to an insider, a manager threw up in a bin after the new owner tasked him with firing dozens of people. There's a sense among workers that the recent things they've been asked to do are part of the test, to identify who has been working hard and who is likely to keep doing so.
A current manager characterised Musk's takeover as ‘unlike anything in my 20-year career’. The rapidly changing work environment and chaos surrounding the transition prompted many workers to express themselves on Twitter. Some are ironizing about how little they’ve been told about anything going on, while others have continued to tweet posts criticising Musk and his actions so far. Scores of workers liked a tweet by a former engineer who said that leaders at Twitter ‘who gleefully took selfies’ with Musk when he showed up to the office earlier in the week ‘and shared vacuous messages of excitement’ need to ‘take a long, hard look in the mirror before facing their team on Monday’.
Former staff in the United States have launched a class-action lawsuit against Twitter, claiming they were not given sufficient notice of their termination. States like California and New York have laws that require companies to give employees lengthy notice before they are fired. Twitter isn't the first company under Elon Musk to be sued for violations. His electric vehicle company Tesla was sued in Texas federal court in June for allegedly violating the WARN Act through an abrupt nationwide purge of its workforce, including 500 layoffs at a factory in Sparks, Nevada.
According to Aude Cefaliello, research at the European Trade Union Institute, ‘these practices are against the law in Europe, and specifically against the Directive on transfer of undertaking. This also raises serious concerns about how the platform is going to comply with the new Code of Practice on Disinformation’. ‘We will see if Musk is really above the law’, she adds. ‘Making sure the law is enforced and respected will send an important message to trade unions in Europe’.