Thousands of Twitter employees have gotten a small taste of what it’s like to work for Elon Musk: The out-of-nowhere firings, the threats and the bluster, the pubescent jocularity, the day-to-day uncertainty and the urgent demands to work through the night.
If there’s such a thing as a warm and cuddly boss, Musk has long been the opposite to his employees, who now number more than 100,000. He burns through executives with the heat of a battery fire. He takes criticism personally, even when it’s a matter of worker or customer safety. He’s been known to fire people on a whim. Since buying Twitter, his public image is shifting fast, from self-described techno-king to unpredictable court jester and human tornado.
Because Musk makes new employees sign tough nondisclosure agreements, and because he’s developed a reputation for exacting retribution on those who cross him, we’ll never know all the stories.
But there’s plenty in the public record. Personal attacks. Union busting. A casual attitude toward factory floor injuries and other health concerns. A dismissive approach to workplace racism. And an allegation involving a horse and sexual favors.
Musk’s short fuse is legend. If something’s wrong and it’s important to Musk, employees have learned to avoid his presence if possible.
Back in 2017 Musk was looking for someone to blame after his plans for cutting-edge automation at Tesla’s Nevada battery factory began chewing up factory productivity.
According to Wired writer Charles Duhigg, in a story called “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk,” the CEO was apoplectic, trying to figure out what was wrong and who was to blame when he summoned a young engineer over to assist him.
“Hey, buddy, this doesn’t work!” he shouted at the engineer, another employee told Duhigg. “Did you do this?”
“You mean, program the robot?” the engineer said. “Or design that tool?”
“Did you f— do this?” Musk asked him.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to?” the engineer replied apologetically.
“You’re a f— idiot!” Musk shouted back. “Get the f— out and don’t come back!”
Tim Higgins’ 2021 Tesla book, “Power Play,” offers several looks at how Musk vents his anger.
“Musk’s fury caused several executives to leave the company, Higgins wrote, including Peter Rawlinson, the executive leading the development of the Model S, who left Tesla to found the electric-car company Lucid Motors.
When asked about his temper, Musk has said he doesn’t do rage firings, but provides “clear and frank” feedback.
A pattern: If Musk perceives he’s been crossed, he does more than seethe — he seeks retribution.
Musk’s quickness to lash out when wounded was on display in the defamation trial that resulted after a British diver suggested that a mini-submarine developed by Musk to rescue youth soccer players trapped in a cave wouldn’t work and Musk responded by calling the diver a pedophile. (Musk won the trial.)
More than once, he’s displayed the same spirit of retaliation toward employees who raised issues at one of his companies.
After Model S engineer Cristina Balan emailed Musk about what she saw as serious safety issues in product design, she was escorted to what she thought would me a face to face with him. Instead, she was led into a security room and fired.
For years Balan has been trying to sue Tesla for defamation. But Tesla lawyers have been able to keep Balan’s evidence from being presented to a judge.
Another whistleblower, Martin Tripp, moved to Hungary to escape the wrath of Musk after the news site Insider ran a story about excessive scrap waste at Tesla’s battery factory in 2018. Private investigators hired by Musk to identify the source named Tripp, a factory employee.
Tripp was fired. Tesla said he stole company data. Musk later called a reporter to say he’d heard Tripp was on his way to the factory with a gun. The local sheriff’s department later said, no, he was miles away in Reno, with no gun and no evidence he had one.
Twitter employees don’t work with dangerous, heavy machinery, like factory workers do. Good thing, based on numerous reports about the safety culture at Tesla through the years.
In May 2017, The Times detailed the safety record at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory. Tesla’s injury incident rate topped that of some industries commonly associated with especially dangerous work, including sawmills and slaughterhouses. Tesla did not dispute the numbers but said that it was “learning how to be a car company” and that “what matters is the future.”
The injury rate did improve. But in 2018, the public radio investigative reporting program “Reveal” alleged that Tesla was leaving injuries off the books.
One way Tesla lowered its injury numbers, according to “Reveal,” was by denying ambulance service to some injured factory workers who requested it. Medical staff were told not to call 911 without management permission.
“The electric car maker’s contract doctors rarely grant it, instead often insisting that seriously injured workers — including one who severed the top of a finger — be sent to the emergency room in a Lyft,” “Reveal” said, quoting five former medical clinic employees at Tesla’s Fremont auto assembly plant.
With COVID-19 ripping through the nation in March 2020, and counties across California ordering “shelter in place” lockdowns, Musk defied the orders and kept the plant open.
Under official pressure, Musk temporarily closed the plant. In May he announced the plant would reopen. Employees could stay home, he said, but wouldn’t be paid.
County public health head Erica Pan and other officials told him it wasn’t safe. The factory would reopen, he said. If officials didn’t like it, they could arrest him. He called Pan “unelected & ignorant” and deemed stay-at-home orders “fascist.” He threatened to move Tesla headquarters from California to Texas. And, in 2021, he did.
Health officials said at least several hundred Tesla factory workers were infected by COVID.
Tesla’s factories are union free, but when workers in Fremont tried to organize, Musk cracked down hard. Tesla later was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for repeatedly violating U.S. labor law, including the firing of a union leader and forcing workers to remove clothing with messages that supported the union. The company was ordered to remove a Musk tweet threatening the disappearance of employee stock options should a union vote prevail.
Most companies discourage executives from fraternizing with staff too intimately because of the messy conflicts it can create. That did not stop Musk from secretly having twins with a top executive at his brain implant company Neuralink, according to an Insider report.
Shivon Zilis, the 36-year-old executive, told Neuralink managers that the twins were born through in vitro fertilization, according to Reuters, and that she didn’t have a romantic relationship with her 51-year-old billionaire boss. Musk has said underpopulation is one of the biggest threats to civilization.
Zilis has continued working as Neuralink’s director of operations and special projects.
In another strange episode, Musk found himself tethered in what’s become know as the horse-for-sex scandal.
Business Insider also broke that story, which revolved around a lawsuit filed by a woman who said she was hired to provide massage services to the world’s richest human.
She alleged she was summoned by Musk aboard his Gulfstream G650ER private jet for a “full body massage” and Musk showed her his erect penis, then “touched her” and “offered to buy her a horse” in return for sex. SpaceX paid the woman $250,000 in a legal settlement.
Hear no evil
Musk’s alleged crossing of personal lines with employees points to a broader issue: A seeming indifference or persistent blindness to issues around race and sex in the workplace.
Former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak published an essay online in 2021 that described a culture in which sexism ran rampant and the company did nothing to stop it. She described “countless men” making sexual advances. After one male co-worker “ran his hand over my shirt, from my lower waist to my chest,” she reported the incident but said no one followed up and the man remained on her team.
Soon after, the Verge talked to several former employees who backed up the gist of Kosak’s account and said they suffered similar harassment and retaliation for reporting it.
SpaceX did not respond to the Verge’s allegations. The publication did obtain an email written by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell that said the company takes sexual harassment seriously, and that “we also know we can always do better.”
After the report of his alleged horse offer, SpaceX employees wrote an open letter criticizing Musk’s behavior and the distraction he created. Some of the employees behind the letter were fired, according to a message from Shotwell obtained by the New York Times. In her letter, Shotwell said people who were asked to sign the letter were made to feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied.”
At Tesla, Black workers have for years made well-documented complaints about racism on the factory floor. Earlier this year, California’s civil rights agency filed suit against the company on behalf of thousands of workers.
Black workers complained that managers called them monkeys and other racial slurs, including routine use of the N-word. Some alleged the Black workers were given the worst jobs, no matter their qualifications. When they complained to human resources, several said, it made matters worse, and some were fired.
Tesla disputed the workers’ accounts at the time, saying, “Tesla prohibits discrimination in any form.”
Musk was not implicated directly in any of the complaints. Nor did he show any sign of taking them more seriously than he has taken past allegations of bias in his company’s workplaces or criticisms of his deportment. His response: An email to workers advising victims of racism to get a “thick skin.”
Russ Mitchell writes for the Los Angeles Times.