What Business Leaders Can Learn from Elon Musk’s Mass Twitter Employee Firing

On November 17th, former Twitter employee Eric Frohnhoefer believed his tweets about a problem with the platform’s speed to his new boss and Twitter CEO Elon Musk were harmless. Having been a staff software engineer for the company for eight years, he included some potential solutions in the tweet. “I feel like I didn’t cross the line. I feel like I addressed the issue appropriately. Obviously, they saw it differently,” Frohnhoefer told the news company NPR. Musk did indeed see it differently, and tweeted Monday that Frohnhoefer was fired. The tweet was later deleted. Frohnhoefer learned about his firing from another coworker who saw the tweet and after verifying with the company later learned that he was officially let go. Unfortunately, Frohnhoefer was not the only employee fired along those lines. Following the public firing, Musk gave all Twitter employees an ultimatum stating that they must commit to long, intense hours in an “extremely hardcore” company by Thursday afternoon or leave, with three month’s severance.  

Business leaders can learn a lot from Mr. Musk’s actions and several ethical questions surface that are worth exploring. Was it right for Musk to fire employees this way? Was it right for those employees to be fired in the first place? The best leaders- those who lead according to the principles of ethical intelligence- use the following rules of thumb when it comes to letting an employee go.  

Do it in person whenever possible. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it can be awkward. However, not only is it the right thing to do, but it can also help manage the relational bridge with that former employee. This can translate into maintaining a positive employer brand. Laying off an employee is not an easy task, however doing it in a sensitive manner can be the difference between improving or hurting the company’s reputation. People are more likely to remember a negative comment compared to a positive one and handling this type of situation correctly can minimize those former employee’s hostile feelings. As shown in Twitter’s case, mishandling such a delicate and traditionally private situation can affect both the public reputation and internal culture. After the mishap, the remaining Twitter employees are now afraid to surface concerns, which will lead to larger problems down the road. Catherine Fisk, a law professor at U.C. Berkley School of Law said, “Creating an environment where workers are afraid to flag problems with the product for fear that they’ll be fired by tweet in the middle of night is not going to encourage people to want to work there. It’s not going to encourage those who are there to want to give their all to the job or to raise questions about whether there’s a better way that something could be done.”  

Be honest, but not brutally so. It is important to address the situation with transparency but should be constrained by the duty to minimize harm. Be forthright with the employee by choosing your words, tone of voice, and demeanor with care. Show compassion for the person. A lay off is life-changing news, so responding in a compassionate manner both honors their dignity and speaks to a better part of your company’s nature. That person is an employee up until they walk out of the office, and therefore deserves the right to ask questions and receive direct answers about the circumstance. A tweet simply does not suffice.