4 mins

Morale has plummeted as the company has rapidly changed from a well-respected engineering organization, to a punchline under the leadership of Elon Musk.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been a rollercoaster ride for everyone involved: investors, users, but especially employees. 

Since buying the company for $44 billion, the billionaire entrepreneur has overhauled the social network in his own image, and now has employees in open revolt. An estimated three-quarters of those whose jobs were saved from initial cuts are now threatening to leave.

It’s an indication of just how far morale has fallen at the company, with staff torn between their loyalty to the platform – which has an outsized role in many people’s lives – and their self-respect and personal wellbeing.

“I think anyone who has ever held a job can tell you that their boss makes a big difference,” says Mar Hicks, Associate Professor for the History of Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Whether management from the highest levels on down seems to respect workers or not is a key factor in determining pretty much everything else about a company, because the workforce is the company – much more than management, or even the product is.”

An engineering exodus

The engineering department at Twitter wasn’t perfect, but it was known to focus on quality over speed, have an open culture of belonging, and prioritize diversity and inclusion.

Those days are gone. In a short time, Musk has tanked those perceptions of a workplace that is founded on principles of respect and trust. From brutally firing half of the workforce within his first few days, to appearing to fire anyone who dared to raise a dissenting voice, and reportedly disbanding employee resource groups, Musk has managed to unapologetically alienate most of his existing staff.

Musk has also attempted to rapidly speed up the rate of feature development at Twitter during his short tenure in charge. Changes are being quickly pushed into production, which is causing conflicts with other features on the highly-distributed platform. 

“If we're going to be pushing at a breakneck pace, things will break,” says one former Twitter engineer, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “Things will just keep getting worse for the user experience, and also for the people trying to keep the users going.”

Things have only degraded from there. Musk's latest gambit, asking employees to opt in to remaining with the company via a Google Form, seems designed to winnow out any further opposing voices.

A platform fraying at the seams

Twitter and its leadership was not perfect prior to the takeover. There was widespread unhappiness at vast pay differences for the same roles across different offices, for example. But it was recognized as a place where engineers took pride in their work, with a core mission of benefitting the world. Many of those who have left in recent weeks have done so because they fear that mission has strayed.

Now, the knock-on impact of these departures on Twitter services may only be starting to show. “I’d be surprised if those staff were just sitting around all day doing nothing,” says Ian Brown, a cybersecurity researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I would have thought they were there for a good reason.”

They were, according to former engineers who have since either left the company under their own volition, or been fired by Musk himself. Twitter engineers have already explained how the platform is starting to fray at the seams, with visible knock-on impacts on the way the service runs.

Because those key departments that keep Twitter online are now short-staffed, there has been a noticeable shift in the focus for what remaining staff are being asked to do.

“There's been for a long time, at least in the engineering departments, a lot of focus on making sure users get what they need, as best as possible,” the former Twitter engineer said. That’s no longer possible when engineers are being asked to code more, and cover for the reduced workforce.

As a result, more and more employees in charge of maintaining Twitter’s key infrastructure, as well as the designers overseeing what Musk had viewed as Twitter’s savior, its Twitter Blue subscription service, have reportedly thrown in the towel.

A slippery slope for truth

It’s not just user experience that suffers as a result of these changes, but the sanctity of truth on the platform.

“You can't cut half of the workforce that monitors the algorithms, and almost all of the workforce that does the human monitoring, and expect these things to work anymore,” says Melissa Ingle, who until last week worked as a contractor coding algorithms that helped moderate inappropriate content on Twitter.

“I think part of it is [Musk] doesn’t want to believe, for whatever reason, that it’s a complex problem,” says Ingle. “He doesn’t understand it, and he won’t listen to his very intelligent and competent advisors who are trying to tell him: ‘Maybe we should not be doing these huge, drastic changes.’”

Ingle is amazed that in the last week the conversation has moved from “How do we keep the site free of toxic content?” to “How do we keep the site running?”.

“There just are not enough people,” she says.

Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.