Musk's HR management style at Twitter gets harsh reaction

HR management experts believe Elon Musk is taking Twitter in a direction that's well outside the norm, and may hurt employee commitment and engagement.

Experts often urge HR management to show employees empathy and support their well-being; some employers are even considering new policies such as a four-day workweek. And then there is Elon Musk's approach. In taking over Twitter, he has ended remote work, seems poised to fire as many as half of its workforce and asked those remaining to commit to long hours or take severance. 

HR management experts believe Musk is heading in the wrong direction. Twitter may face ongoing problems with retention and recruiting and legal risks from employees, especially those with disabilities. According to a regulatory filing, Twitter had more than 7,500 employees before Musk's acquisition.

Musk told employees this week that they need to be "extremely hardcore. This will mean working long hours at high intensity," he wrote in an email Wednesday, reported The Washington Post. Employees have until Thursday to agree or take a severance.

Employees who agree to sign Musk's agreement may do so without any sense "of long-term commitment and true engagement," said Melvin Smith, a professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

If they don't have another job, employees may feel it is in their best interest to "sign this for now until I do have something else in hand," Smith said. 

Smith said it would be a mistake to draw a correlation between Musk's management leadership style and the success of his other firms. "He may be successful in some instances despite his leadership, as opposed to because of it," he said.

There is no plan here

David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn., said Musk seems "completely incapable of understanding" how to carry out a reduction in force.

"He's just cutting," he said.

Lewis said Musk doesn't appear to be trying to understand or connect with the existing culture or the employees' contributions. "He's just looking at this as a numbers game," he said.

There's no way to look at this and see a plan.
David LewisPresident and CEO, OperationsInc

"There's no way to look at this and see a plan," Lewis said. If you are an HR management leader, "your head keeps shaking every time you read the latest about what's going on over there."

CEOs have the discretion to change a firm's culture and working hours but also have compliance issues to consider, said Qiaojing Ella Zheng, co-managing partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp's Palo Alto and San Francisco offices.

According to Zheng, Twitter needs to define "what counts as a hardcore" working culture, apart from working long hours.

Even mandating that employees work long hours can become an issue. If Twitter requires this against a doctor's recommendation, for example, that would pose a problem for the company, Zheng said. "The employees would be entitled to bring disability discrimination claims," she said.

She also noted that changes in working conditions usually harm the most vulnerable groups, Zheng said, such as workers with childcare responsibilities.

Twitter might also have to rethink its relationships with independent contractors. If independent contractors are affected by changes in Twitter's management approach, and the company exercises stricter control these workers, "they might qualify as employees," which means the company would have to comply with relevant labor laws, Zheng said.

Peter Dominick, a professor within the School of Business at the Stevens Institute of Technology who researches leadership, said leaders should set a "clear vision and expectation" and "look for lots of opportunities to let people feel valued and appreciated" during times of transition. That's needed because changes such as what is happening at Twitter bring with it "high levels of uncertainty," he said. 

It's essential to set a tone "that you are valued here," Dominick said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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