Nearly three years into a pandemic and several months into an economic downturn, corporate layoffs have all started to borrow from the same flawed playbook: the earnest, if impersonal layoffs over Zoom. The blog posts, written by CEOs, who claim to be heartbroken by their decisions. The cringey crying CEO videos.
Each of these approaches is flawed in its own way. Layoffs are never anything but brutal. But few examples have compared to the singular cruelty of Twitter’s overnight purge.
Unlike so many of his industry peers, Twitter’s new chief, Elon Musk, has yet to personally express — or even feign — any remorse at all about his decision. There was no tortured thread about how difficult the cuts would be, no public blog post laying out the company’s reasoning or the benefits fired workers would receive going forward.
Instead, as Twitter employees found themselves suddenly locked out of company accounts Thursday night, after receiving a companywide email that said layoffs were about to begin, Musk spent the wee hours reacting to shitposts about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and literally posting about shit.
“Why is small talk even legal!?” Musk tweeted at nearly 1 a.m. ET, as one-time Twitter employees around the world tweeted salute emojis and emotional goodbyes.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Even the email that Twitter’s new leadership sent to staff was uniquely cold. It acknowledged that this is “an incredibly challenging experience to go through,” but immediately followed up by reminding the thousands of people who were about to be canned “to adhere to Twitter policies that prohibit you from discussing confidential company information on social media, with the press or elsewhere.” The brief memo — the first communication employees had received from their new boss — wasn’t even signed by Musk. Instead, the email was signed simply “Twitter,” a reminder to the thousands of people who have built Twitter for years that it now belongs to people who have been with the company about a week.
This was never going to end well. Musk has said almost nothing but lousy things about Twitter since he first tried to buy it, and that was before an ugly court fight where he tried to back out of the deal. He had barely stepped foot in the place before he fired the top brass, without so much as a word of warning to the staff, and has reportedly ruled with an iron fist ever since in a desperate bid to ship more paid products to offset the $13 billion in debt Twitter is now saddled with.
Musk was never going to give Twitter employees a warm and fuzzy goodbye — or, apparently, even a hello — but the suddenness and scale of the layoffs, the utter lack of communication leading up to it, and Musk’s complete failure to even address it in the midst of his gleeful overnight emoji spree smacked of a particular kind of vengeance. “Layoffs are a fact of life — this isn’t the only one today and it’s far from the first at Twitter,” tweeted Twitch Chief Product Officer Tom Verrilli. “But it’s the inhumanity of this one that strikes such a chord.”
The question now: Did Musk’s harsh approach violate labor laws? Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a lawsuit Thursday in San Francisco federal court claiming Musk did not give employees enough notice before layoffs. “Look Ma I’m suing Twitter,” tweeted former Twitter software engineer Manu Cornet, who is one of five named plaintiffs in the suit.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires employers with 100 or more workers to provide at least 60 days of notice before laying off 50 or more employees at a single site of employment. The federal and California versions of the law are similar, though the California law is slightly more friendly to employees.
According to the suit, Cornet was fired from Twitter “effective immediately” on Nov. 1 and received no severance. Musk’s other company, Tesla, has been fighting a separate WARN Act suit filed by former factory workers.
Proving that Twitter violated the WARN Act would force Musk to offer affected employees benefits and backpay for up to 60 days, but it can only go so far. “The WARN Act doesn’t have many protections,” Lee Adler, an employment law professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said. “It can’t restore employment.”
Bloomberg reported that Musk planned to eliminate around 3,700 jobs, but it’s still unclear exactly how many Twitter employees were actually affected, where they’re based, and what Twitter is offering them as severance. Depending on those details, there may be ways for Musk to avoid another court battle. If Twitter were to offer two months’ severance, it would void any lawsuits claiming a WARN Act violation, employment attorney Jack Raisner of New York firm Raisner Roupenian told Protocol.
Twitter might also use the “single site of employment” required under the law to its advantage. Though the company is based in California, Twitter employees work from around the world. “Everything [has] to be looked at through the prism of: What is the location in which these layoffs have occurred?” Raisner said.
Even if Twitter and Musk don’t suffer legal consequences, it seems inevitable that the brutality of the layoffs will leave a stain on the company’s reputation and internal culture, which has been singled out in the tech world as being notably inclusive and open — characteristics that are rarely, if ever, attributed to Musk’s other companies.
On Thursday night and throughout Friday morning, Twitter employees past and present mourned the end of that chapter. “Quitting Twitter Inc earlier this year is like graduating high school and feeling a bit sad but like, nostalgic,” one former Tweep wrote, “and then a few months later your high school explodes.”