One by one, Amir Shevat’s team members were disappearing.
It was past midnight in Austin, Texas on Friday November 4th, and the 46-year-old software engineer found himself unable to sleep as he waited to discover which of the workers he managed would be fired from Twitter.
Employees had been braced for massive layoffs ever since Elon Musk took over the troubled social media company, and had been told to expect a final decision the next day.
Instead, the cuts began ahead of schedule on Thursday night, when Shevat’s colleagues suddenly began vanishing from the company messaging channel – each profile going grey as their work computers were remotely “bricked”, or made inoperable.
“It was very emotional,” recalls Shevat in an interview with The Independent. “You can’t go to sleep, you can’t do anything… you have to stay there for [your employees]. That’s what leaders do, in my book.” He likens it to a scene in The Matrix where the treacherous Cipher strolls among his helpless comrades, taunting them as he unplugs their brains one by one.
In San Francisco, 48-year-old data scientist Melissa Ingle was watching the same thing. Her team had set up a WhatsApp group ahead of time so they could stay in touch if they were fired.
As the clocks hit 11pm in each successive timezone – first New York City, then Chicago, then Arizona and the American Midwest – her colleagues were forcibly logged out of Twitter’s systems, sometimes while they were writing or running computer code.
“It was like this tidal wave coming across the United States, advancing towards you, and you had no idea if you were going to be drowned or if you were standing on high enough ground to escape this,” Ingle tells The Independent.
Shevat was fired that night, while Ingle’s job would survive another week. But for them and the other roughly 13,000 people who worked for Twitter before Musk, it was only the beginning of a chaotic month-long whirlwind of bizarre demands, sudden purges, public humiliations, broken promises, and allegedly cruel and abusive management tactics.
“The treatment Twitter has given these folks has been abhorrent,” says Akiva Cohen, a lawyer representing at least 22 former Twitter employees who accuse the company of illegally withholding their severance money and benefits. “[Musk] has mocked people after firing them, gone back on his and Twitter’s word about what severance employees could expect if they were fired after the merger, fired people on the eve of a holiday, and just hasn’t seemed to recognise, at all, that he’s dealing with human beings who deserve to be treated with basic decency and respect.”
This is the story of how Elon Musk all but razed Twitter 1.0 to the ground – and of what happened to the people who stood in his way.
Kept in the dark
It was hardly an inspiring message to see from Parag Agrawal, the chief executive of Twitter.
“Hey folks, if you’ve been having anxiety issues because of everything that’s been happening and the potential consequences, I have good news. These things take a long time… so you’ll remain in the same state for weeks if not months before this all resolves!”
The real Agrawal never said these words. But his parody likeness – as depicted by Twitter employee and cartoonist Manu Cornet on April 25, 2022, the same day Musk agreed to buy the company for $44 billion – summed up the trepidation and confusion felt by many “Tweeps”.
Musk’s buyout bid had followed weeks of strident criticism and sometimes mockery from Musk, who accused Twitter of undermining democracy by suppressing free speech and sparked speculation that he might unban former president Donald Trump.
“Even back then, we were very, very worried,” says Ingle. “It made us feel like we had a target on our backs.” She worked on Twitter’s “civic integrity” team, designing machine learning algorithms that helped human content moderators find and remove political misinformation – exactly the kind of speech policing Musk seemed to be against. Other colleagues created similar algorithms to detect harassment, child abuse material, and copyright infringement.
Over the next six months, Musk attempted to back out of the bid and wrestled with Twitter’s board in the courts and in the media, driving down the company’s stock price and its employees’ morale.
One Cornet cartoon in May showed Musk on a ship preparing to board Twitter’s vessel, watching in confusion as its crew use axes to chop their own boat apart. Another in early October showed Twitter’s blue bird mascot groaning in stupor after riding a twisting rollercoaster.
When Musk finally sealed the deal by carrying a real-life kitchen sink into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on October 26, most employees were expecting massive layoffs – as many as 75 per cent. But the new management quickly made clear that communication was not its priority.
“It was chaotic and unprofessional,” says Shevat, who had become the head of product for Twitter’s third-party developer platform after his own start-up was acquired by the company in 2021. “I’ve been through a few acquisitions, and there’s usually a lot of communication – because that was the right thing to do. People are in an area of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, so you optimise for communication.”
Instead, Shevat says he was banned from gathering his team together to answer their questions, and even told he might be fired if he did so: “The entire process was pretty inhumane.”
Twitter was previously known in Silicon Valley for its laid-back culture and respect for work-life balance. Musk’s ownership hit the company like a bomb, forcing rapid changes while leaving workers with a “deprivation of information”.
As Musk ejected Twitter’s top executives and replaced them with his venture capitalist friends, Shevat’s team had no clue what they were supposed to be working on, not least because his own managers kept getting fired. For days, there was no company-wide communication from Musk or his deputies – but plenty of strange and contradictory orders.
Engineers were told to print out 50 pages of their most recent code, then to cancel that. Loyalists from Musk’s other companies, such as Tesla and SpaceX, began interrogating Tweeps about which employees were most valuable. All-hands meetings were scheduled and then cancelled. Middle managers desperately tried to interpret the void and provide instructions.
“If you’re feeling bleak and dismayed right now, just want you to know you’re not alone. This sucks,” wrote one worker on the company’s internal version of Slack, a messaging service. “At random times we were asked to do random things and with no reason or context,” says Shevat.
While some teams were left to wait in the dark, others were immediately given nightmarish deadlines to complete Musk’s new wish list. “The expectation is literally to work 24/7 to get this out,” said one internal message on Sunday 30. “It is absolutely critical for us to get this done in such a short amount of time,” said another. Other workers were told to pull 12 hour shifts seven days a week. One manager advocated “working with maniacal energy”.
Director of product development Esther Crawford was even photographed sleeping on her office floor in a sleeping bag. Twitter’s monthly company-wide “days of rest”, introduced by co-founder Jack Dorsey during the early Covid pandemic, disappeared from employees’ calendars without explanation.
“Management have repeatedly threatened to fire us if we miss delivery, even if it’s totally outside our control,” wrote one Twitter worker on the anonymous social network Blind, which verifies users’ employment status via their corporate email address. “If we don’t work at weekends, we’re gone. If we take paid time off or leave, we’re gone. People are working ridiculous hours. I’m working around 20 hours per day at absolutely full velocity.
“I’m waking up in the night to attend status calls. Even when I’m not working, I can’t stop worrying about it. I can’t cope. I’m an absolute mess. I’m at breaking point. This is after just a few days of Elon.”
The tidal wave comes in
Finally, on Thursday November 3rd, all Twitter employees were locked out of the San Francisco office. The long-heralded layoffs had arrived.
“In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult purpose of reducing our global workforce on Friday,” said an email sent out by senior managers – although none had dared to actually put their name on it. “To help ensure the safety of each employee as well as Twitter systems and customer data, our offices will be temporarily closed and all badge access will be suspended.”
Behind the scenes, Musk reportedly sequestered himself in a “war room” to plan the layoffs with his close advisers – or “goons,” as many Tweeps took to call them. He reportedly told executives he wanted to fire people before they received their regular bonuses on November 1st, but relented after being told that these bonuses would be millions of dollars cheaper than the likely legal fees and fines.
According to The New York Times, some of the layoff plotting happened in a Slack channel which was left accidentally open for employees to discover on November 2nd. When one manager was given a hundreds-long list of employees to fire, he vomited into a trash can.
Employees were told they would know by 9am Pacific Time on Friday morning whether they had a future at the company.
Yet Ingle received no such warning. Despite the importance of her work – which shaped Twitter’s response to elections in the US, the European Union, Brazil, India, and around the world – she was only a contractor, culturally very integrated with her team but lacking company health insurance or retirement contributions. Hence, it was on WhatsApp that she watched the “tidal wave” wash away much of her department, including her boss. One manager on another team only knew one of her employees had been fired when they suddenly dropped from a video call in progress.
Helen-Sage Lee, part of the Twitter team that was preparing for the US midterms in five days’ time, described the company’s conduct in a legal filing as “cruel”, saying it had cut people off in the middle of working and stopped them from getting their personal effects from the office. “No final goodbyes, no certainty of being able to connect with the other folks who were let go, and no time to save any important work documents,” she said.
According to the widely respected tech newsletter Platformer, employees who could still access Slack posted whatever farewells they could, sharing two emoji – a blue heart and a military-style salute – that soon came to symbolise solidarity between Tweeps and former Tweeps. Others posted memes referencing Marvel’s Avengers films, in which a villain snaps his fingers to instantly annihilate 50 per cent of the universe’s population.
Lisa Bloom, a Los-Angeles-based lawyer who is representing Shevat and Lee in their dispute with the company, and who has spoken to “hundreds” of former Twitter employees, says a total of 3,765 people were laid off in that first wave – around half of Twitter’s 7,400 full time staff. That reportedly included all members of Twitter’s brand-new African headquarters in Accra, Ghana, which had opened just days before on Tuesday November 1st. Other layoffs over the next few days targeted staff in Spain and Ireland, where Twitter has its European HQ.
The cuts targeted everyone, from researchers studying the political bias of Twitter’s algorithms to the veteran “site reliability engineers” (SREs) who keep major online services such as Twitter running. “There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason,” says Ingle. “There were people who appear to have done essential job functions let go.” She says layoffs were likely to happen anyway, citing similar moves at Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook’s parent company Meta – but that Musk “just took his little samurai sword and cut the company in half”.
One former employee told Platformer: “It’ll stick with me forever that he never addressed the employees even once before firing half of us. Downright cowardly that he couldn’t bring himself to sign his name to the layoff email.”
‘Hi, do I still work here?’
All too predictably, chaos ensued. Twitter’s communications department was gone, as was much of the HR department. Nobody seemed to know where anyone was or who was responsible for what.
Bloom says one of her clients tried to ask HR about their own job and got an error message back. “There was nobody home,” she says. According to Business Insider, so many people were fired by mistake that internal systems were later updated to let hiring managers select “accidental termination” when re-adding employees to the company’s books.
Key pieces of software had become inaccessible, while contracts with software vendors expired without anyone to manage them. According to reports, a server room in the New York office overheated and temporarily wiped out the wi-fi, while Musk wasn’t even able to access Twitter’s own Twitter account, since those who managed it had all been fired. The entire US PR team, which was respected by many tech journalists for being more responsive and transparent than others in Silicon Valley, was also reportedly laid off.
Quickly, Musk’s inner circle seemed to realise that they had cut too deep and too haphazardly. Managers and recruiters were sent out to try and re-hire some laid off employees, in some cases because there was no one at the company who knew how to operate important pieces of internal software.
While those assigned to Muskian projects worked frantic hours, others were still without direction. Musk had not yet explained his plan to the company, or issued any official communications, even as he tussled with critics and bantered with alt-right social media influencers on Twitter itself. “It was just very low morale,” recalls Ingle. “Nobody feels like working, but we all feel this tremendous pressure to work. I didn’t know if my work even mattered to Twitter. Was I putting on all this work for nothing? Because I didn’t have an assignment.”
Like many contractors, Ingle herself was in limbo, experiencing what she calls “Schrödinger’s Job”. If she was fired, she would get no severance pay, leaving her scrambling to help provide for her two children. But Twitter had neither fired her nor given her new tasks: “So now my boss and my boss’s boss were gone. I started emailing people – do I still work here? Literally, do I still work here?” One staffer even submitted a support ticket via Jira – a widely-used bug-tracking and project management system – on her behalf, with Elon Musk as one of the listed people.
Finally, at 11:39pm San Francisco time on Wednesday November 9th, Musk addressed his remaining employees.”Sorry that this is my first email to the whole company, but there is no way to sugarcoat the message,” he wrote. “Frankly, the economic picture ahead is dire… Without significant subscription revenue, there is a good chance Twitter will not survive the upcoming economic downturn.” Never mind that Musk himself had saddled the company with $13 billion of debt to fund his buyout, multiplying its annual interest payments by twenty.
There was one more bombshell: Twitter’s longstanding “work from home forever” policy was cancelled, and as of Thursday everyone would need to be in the office 40 hours a week unless there were exceptional circumstances. “What is the guidance for Tweeps with children and other dependents who need to arrange childcare etc?” asked one employee in a Slack message reported by Platformer. “These are not arrangements that can realistically be changed at a moment’s notice… this new policy seems designed to penalise parents, guardians, and other caregivers who may have designed their whole lives around full or partial remote work.”
Musk defended the policy vigorously at an all-hands meeting the next day, arguing that “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question” and saying: “If you can physically make it to an office and you don’t show up, resignation accepted.” Several senior executives working on critical areas of the company resigned within a few hours.
On Saturday November 12, Ingle was strolling through a shopping mall in the San Francisco suburbs, doing some early Christmas shopping with her 11-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend, when she received an odd notification on her phone. She tried to log into her Twitter email app, but was locked out. She tried Slack, with the same result. Without any warning or direct communication, the axe had fallen on her too.
“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I was devastated. San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the world…. It can be brutal to try to live here. My immediate concern is: How am I going to afford rent? How am I going to afford to give my children a nice Christmas?”
She didn’t want to ruin her daughter’s evening, so she put on a brave face and took them to a restaurant. “I was really just trying to hold it together and not break down in front of them,” she says. “[My kids] are 11 and 14, they’re old enough to understand some of the realities of the world. But you don’t want to give them undue worry.”
Only later did Ingle get an email from her direct employer, a contracting company, confirming the decision. The managers of such contractors at Twitter had not been informed of their imminent departures either, with one reportedly fired while making “critical changes” to systems designed to stop child abuse.
In all, an estimated 4,400 out of 5,500 contractors were slashed – many of them frontline content moderators responsible for cleaning up the worst sludge the social network’s users could generate (a job that is crucial but often badly paid and traumatising.)
While Twitter continued to bleed talent – including its chief privacy officer, chief security officer, chief compliance officer, chief marketing officer, a vice president of advertising, and its head of trust and safety – Musk publicly criticised his employee’s work on the social network. Employees who pushed back, whether in public or in private, were quickly fired. It was a sharp break from Twitter’s previous mantra of “communicate fearlessly to build trust,” which had up until now encouraged frank and open criticism. Also unusual was Musk publicly mocking some of the fired employees, sarcastically calling them “geniuses”.
On November 16, layoff emails reached employees in Ireland and Germany, both member states of the European Union. But Twitter’s US bosses appeared either to not understand or not care about the EU’s strict labour regulations, and lawyers and trade unions representing these workers argued that they had not been validly terminated.
While those fights are ongoing, Twitter has since been ordered to restore one Irish senior executive – Sinéad McSweeney, a veteran lawyer who is the company’s global head of public policy – to her post. Although companies in Ireland are legally required to notify the government of mass layoffs 30 days ahead of time, Ireland’s enterprise minister Leo Varadkar said that Twitter did not do so.
Then, in an apparent attempt to regain control of the situation, Musk further upped the ante. At midnight between Wednesday November 16th and Thursday 17th, he sent an email to all remaining Twitter employees asking them to click a button agreeing to drastic changes in the working conditions, or otherwise take three months’ pay and resign. “Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore. This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” he wrote. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
‘The most toxic tech work environment of 2022’
For some employees, this was the opportunity they had been looking for. “The question I’ve asked myself over and over again in the last 6 months was ‘What’s keeping me here?’” said Helen-Sage Lee on December 2nd. Now, for many, the answer was “nothing”.
Numerous employees who took the exit would later explain on Twitter that they did not see the point of staying to work longer hours under harsher conditions with no extra pay, in order to fulfil the unclear vision of a man who had forced their colleagues to work crunch hours before unceremoniously firing them overnight.
“Tweeps, you can’t trust this man yet he expects nothing but unquestioning loyalty from you. It might feel scary to leave, and you may have to stay right now for personal reasons, but please get that resume out there and find a company that treats you with respect,” said Tracy Hawkins, who had resigned earlier in November because she did not want to work for Musk.
Manu Cornet’s cartoon for November 17 showed a choice between two pills: a red pill marked “burn out slaving away for a sociopathic clown”, and a blue pill marked “fly away”.
Some, however, simply couldn’t afford to click yes. “We have heard from, and currently represent, a number of people who are parents or who have disabilities, and who just could not agree to work unlimited long hours,” says Bloom. “This is not a 19th-century sweatshop. This is the 21st century. People should go in, work hard, and then go home and be entitled to have families and other interests.”
The calculus was different for foreign employees living in the US on work visas – a common situation in Silicon Valley, which attracts top coders from across the world. These people are sponsored by one company, and many do not have the right to seek employment elsewhere according to the terms of those visas. “I came to this country eight years ago on a [work] visa,” says Shevat. “I know how it feels. I lost the most amount of sleep [as a manager] because of people like that – people that will have to be uprooted from their families with no ability to change employers.”
Some types of work visa allow the holder to look for a new employer, but with a tight 60-day deadline. “You’re put under pressure to get a job that is not a good fit for you. When I was in that position, I felt like I’m a slave to the visa. Abusing that is wrong,” says Shevat.
Asked whether he feels Musk and Twitter have abused that power, Shevat says yes: “If you get an email that says ‘You must now work extremely hard for the same compensation, and if you don’t click on this link, you’re out’ – if you have a visa, you’re going to click. You have no other option. You go back home, you look at your kids, you look at your wife, and you say: ‘I’m gonna do whatever it takes, because I don’t have any option.’ Not giving people options and freedom is abusive in my book.”
As the decision point approached, Twitter’s Slack channels began to fill up with emotional farewells and saluting emoji. Around 1,000 people are estimated to have resigned on that day – reportedly far more than Musk and his “goons” expected.
Yet the layoffs continued. Musk had instituted regular code reviews, which some employees suspected were a pretext to fire more people. Just before Thanksgiving, an estimated 50 more people were reportedly fired, with some engineers being told their code was “not satisfactory” but given no details about what that meant. Everyone fired had said yes to “Twitter 2.0”, but got less severance pay than if they had said no.
“We have to ask the question: Why is Elon Musk creating what seems to be the most toxic working environment among major tech companies in 2022?” asked the Pragmatic Engineer newsletter, which estimated that by November 24 the company had only 2,675 workers left.
Last week, a group of Twitter janitors also went on strike against the rumoured termination of their contract. Union leaders accuse Musk of ending that contract early in an act of “retaliation”.
“This is nothing new to us,” Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, tells The Independent, describing a “pattern of behaviour” at Tesla where Musk “thinks he can operate in California while refusing to abide by the law”. Musk has reportedly brought in two of his cousins, about 150 people from his other companies, and a man who hoaxed reporters by pretending to be a Twitter employee leaving the building after being fired.
Meanwhile, employees returning to work on Monday December 5th were reportedly greeted by conference rooms that had been converted into hotel-style bedrooms for them to sleep at the office – not something they had asked for or discussed. Some workers do appear to be making use of them.
Photographs shared with BBC News showed sofas turned into simple beds, rooms equipped with slippers and wardrobes, and a newly installed washing machine. San Francisco’s building inspectors are now investigating the situation.
Claims of discrimination
Many former Twitter employees declined to comment for this story because they were bound by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), concerned about being punished, or too emotionally drained by the situation to discuss it any further. Last week, Musk reportedly sent an email to all employees reminding them of their NDAs, giving them until 5pm to sign a pledge not to leak confidential information to the press, and threatening to sue and seek damages from anyone who disobeyed.
Those that remain are “extremely upset”, with “very, very low morale”, says Ingle, who is still in touch with some former colleagues. “They’re feeling overwhelmed with work, and sort of flung about by the dictates of one person,” she explains. “Twitter was this very collaborative, deliberative organisation, right? We very carefully considered what we were going to do, and it was very data-driven. And now… everybody’s on edge, wondering what the next communication will be and how it’s going to affect their lives and their livelihood. If they’re still there, it’s because they believe in the mission of Twitter – more than they believe in Mr Musk. It’s just very difficult to work in that kind of chaotic environment.”
A forecast on Tuesday by the market analysis firm Insider Intelligence estimated that Twitter will suffer an “exodus” of more than 32 million monthly active users over the next two years – about 9 per cent of the total – as its demoralised “skeleton staff” fail to address technical glitches and offensive content. Of course, since Twitter is no longer a publicly traded company, it now has no obligation to reveal its user numbers.
In addition to the building inspection, Musk’s first month at Twitter has already provoked numerous lawsuits and demands for arbitration. Both Akiva Cohen and Lisa Bloom accuse the company of stiffing their clients on severance packages that were promised before the acquisition. Bloom also says the firings broke California’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires employers in the Golden State to give 60 days’ notice of any mass layoffs. Technically, Twitter’s laid-off workers are still employed until at least January, but are on mandatory paid leave until their final departure.
Cohen claims that Musk is trying to push employees into accepting less than they were promised, hoping enough of them will do so that it will prove cheaper for the company overall. “If [Musk] has to pay the full severance to all 3,000-plus of his fired employees, it might cost Twitter nine figures,” he says. “It’s why they’re so desperate to find a way around paying what they owe.”
But, he adds, together his clients are owed millions of dollars, not counting any special damages that might be winnable under state law: “The eventual damages number, especially across all the clients repped by all the firms, will be quite high.”
A discrimination lawsuit accuses Twitter of illegally targeting women for layoffs, which affected 57 per cent of the company’s female employees in the US and 47 per cent of its male employees. It also alleges that Musk’s “unreasonable” work demands and sudden end to remote work disproportionately affected women.
Indeed, Cohen says some of his clients have given him reason to suspect Musk’s layoffs broke anti-discrimination laws in some US states. According to Wired, some employees were fired partway through getting company-sponsored IVF, which they were relying upon to conceive children. Shevat also found that, after the first round of layoffs, when he created a list of companies that were hiring in order to help people affected, “about 80 per cent” of the people who messaged him were “diverse” candidates such as women, people of colour, and LGBT+ people.
Ingle says that a colleague of hers was fired after submitting a maternity leave request, but was rehired with an apology after putting pressure on the company.
Already some Silicon Valley leaders have applauded Musk’s tactics, describing them as a welcome corrective to years of steadily growing worker power. When the economy looked brighter and tech giants were scrambling over each other for top talent, employees at Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Meta and beyond leveraged their human capital to resist and pressure their bosses, including over political issues such as banning Donald Trump and cooperating with the US military or Chinese government. Musk may prove only the first of many tech barons to strike back with relish.
Most of all, former employees and lawyers representing them describe Musk’s behaviour as cruel and unnecessary. Many say they understand Musk might have needed to conduct layoffs if he thought it was right for the company, but that he appeared to go out of his way to do so brutally and disrespectfully.
In late November, Manu Cornet shared a well-known blog post called “Sick systems: how to keep someone with you forever”, which details various alleged tactics of abusive managers such as “keep them too busy to think” and “keep the crises rolling”. “This is exactly what it was like for me to work at Twitter in the first few days after Musk took over,” wrote Cornet.
As Musk denigrated Twitter’s workforce on Twitter, many former members received harassment and abuse from people claiming to be fans of his. Shevat’s demand for arbitration says he received antisemitic invective, while Ingle, who is transgender, got “just unreal amounts of hate” targeting her because of her identity, including two death threats.
Since then, Musk seems to have adopted a scorched-earth policy. He has given selected journalists unprecedented access to Twitter’s past internal chat logs (a.k.a “the Twitter Files”), accusing his predecessors of politically motivated censorship and “election interference”. Following mild criticism from Twitter’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, he groundlessly — and outrageously — suggested that Roth was an enabler of child abuse.
Musk’s tweets both echoed and amplified conspiracy theories that had been gathering steam for days beforehand, stoking another torrent of harassment and threats that have reportedly forced Roth to leave his home. As a demonstration of Musk’s willingness to lash out at his critics, it is unlikely to be lost on other former Tweeps.
Describing Musk’s behaviour, Shevat says: “It’s bullying. It’s using power to abuse the people who are under you, and doing that with glee. I think it’s reprehensible.”
He pauses, then adds: “I’m using soft words because I used to live in Silicon Valley. In Texas, they would use different words.”
Twitter and Elon Musk were approached for comment on this story but did not respond