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Fired by tweet: Elon Musk's latest actions are jeopardizing Twitter, experts say

People walk outside Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
Jeff Chiu
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AP
People walk outside Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Eric Frohnhoefer thought his tweets to Twitter CEO (and his new boss) Elon Musk explaining why there was a problem with the platform's speed was innocuous enough.

Musk had tweeted, "I'd like to apologize for Twitter being super slow in many countries," blaming it on "poorly batched RPCs" (remote process calls).

Frohnhoefer responded to the post and said the billionaire was mistaken on the cause of the app's slow speed. He also suggested potential solutions.

Frohnhoefer had been a staff software engineer at the company for eight years, with an expertise on Android systems. In other words, he knew a thing or two about how the site worked.

"I feel like I didn't cross the line. I feel like I answered it appropriately. And yeah, obviously they saw it differently," Frohnhoefer told NPR.

There were some on social media that watched Frohnhoefer's exchange with his boss and saw it as problematic, and a potential fireable offense. But Frohnhoefer noted part of Twitter's culture, at least prior to Musk, was about being able to flag problems and to disagree when the company's product was at issue.

Musk apparently viewed it poorly. On Monday, Musk tweeted that Frohnhoefer was fired. Musk later deleted the tweet.

"So that's how I found out. From that tweet," he said.

Frohnhoefer learned about his firing by another coworker who saw Musk's tweet. He verified with the company he was let go from Twitter and that was that.

A spokesperson for Twitter could not be reached.

But reports from Platformer, which first spoke to Frohnhoefer, indicate he wasn't the only one fired along these lines. The outlet said others were reportedly terminated for "their behavior."

In addition to the public firing of Frohnhoefer this week, Musk also gave employees an ultimatum: They must commit to long, intense hours in an "extremely hardcore" company by Thursday afternoon or leave, with three month's severance.

These latest, very public antics by Musk not only hurts his employees, but also the platform's ability to operate seamlessly and to earn a profit, a labor lawyer and tech PR specialist told NPR. Musk's actions are also likely costing the company qualified talent and more money in the long run.

"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," Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, said. "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."

Musk is already under fire for laying off a huge chunk of the workforce just a week after his takeover. Twitter was sued the day before the layoffs by workers fearful that they would not receive the legally required 60 days' notice for layoffs. (Twitter did, in fact, offer three months' severance.)

"He keeps acting with this flagrant disregard for the engineers at Twitter," said Ed Zitron, who runs a media consulting business for tech startups. "It is a remarkable thing that Twitter has remained up in the last few weeks, considering the complete mania that Musk has been operating with."

The Twitter page of Elon Musk is seen on the screen of a computer on April 25, 2022.
Eric Risberg / AP
/
AP
The Twitter page of Elon Musk is seen on the screen of a computer on April 25, 2022.

Employees care deeply for Twitter, Frohnhoefer says

Before Musk, Twitter was always a place where employees cared for the product, worked hard, helped each other out, and tried to do what was right, Frohnhoefer said.

"If you think something's not right or not wrong, you say something. And if you think something needs to be done, you say something," he said of the pre-Musk times. "I think anyone's world view of Twitter is that we're just a bunch of lazy slackers. But we do work hard."

After Musk took over, the staff waited to learn about his next steps. The first communication the company got was about mass layoffs.

"No one even signed [the email]," he said. "It's cowardly the way they act and it's clear that they don't trust us. And people don't trust management. And it's basically destroyed everything in less than two weeks."

Frohnhoefer said his former colleagues are still looking out for each other as many face life after Twitter.

"I know people choose to stay for various reasons. But I know a lot of people they don't have visas, or they need to pay bills, or they have a mortgage to pay," he said — and they will remain working at a very different Twitter.

Musk risks advertising money and employee well-being, experts say

Traders gather around a post as Twitter shares resume trading on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, on Oct. 4, 2022.
Seth Wenig / AP
/
AP
Traders gather around a post as Twitter shares resume trading on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, on Oct. 4, 2022.

Both Zitron and Fisk describe the way Musk has gone about taking over Twitter as "insane" and "crazy."

The company's financial outlook is bleak as many advertisers have taken a "wait-and-see approach" in the meantime. Under Musk's control, talks of the company going bankrupt have circulated.

"Advertisers are the only way back for Elon. If he cannot get those advertisers back, he is screwed," Zitron said.

Musk's new belief that employees should take a "hardcore" approach to work is likely going to make things worse, Zitron said.

"There's so much research out there that says if you overwork people, it literally kills them," he said. "And now he's turning to the remaining people, many of whom I'm sure have terrible survivor's guilt, who have to sit there and work these obscene hours to build products that they know will probably not generate the money that Elon Musk needs to keep employing them. We are looking at one of the worst financial transactions in history, and possibly one of the worst executives in history."

Twitter can potentially add more legal trouble to the messy plate, Fisk notes.

"We know that Twitter has been sued for this abrupt firing, which means they're going to pay 60 days of compensation to all those people who were laid off. That's a lot of money to pay people for work that the company is not going to get the benefit of," she said. "And then you add up arbitrary, or retaliatory firings, as [the Frohnhoefer firing] might be."

California, notably, has labor law making an employer's retaliation against employees, for a variety of reasons, illegal.

"That's a lot of litigation that seems unnecessary," Fisk said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.