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Is the world’s richest person the world’s worst boss? What it’s like working for Elon Musk

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photo illustration of Elon Musk surrounded by twitter birds, tesla cars, a spacex rocket and a horse.

(Jim Cooke/Los Angeles Times; Photo: Patrick Pleul/Pool Photo)

Over the past two weeks, thousands of Twitter employees have gotten a little taste of what it’s like to work for Elon Musk: the sudden layoffs, the threats and the bluster, the pubescent banter, the daily uncertainty and urgent requests to work through the night.

If there is a warm, cuddly boss, Musk has long been the stark contrast to his employees, who today number more than 100,000. He scorches executives with the heat of a drum fire. He takes criticism personally, even when it comes to worker or customer safety. He’s been known to fire people on a whim. Since buying Twitter, his public image has shifted rapidly from a self-proclaimed techno-king to an unpredictable court jester and human whirlwind.

Because Musk requires new hires to sign strict nondisclosure agreements and because he has earned a reputation for exacting retaliation from those who cross paths with him, we’ll never know all the stories.

But there are plenty of them in the public record. Personal attacks. Union break. A casual attitude towards factory floor injuries and other health issues. A dismissive approach to racism in the workplace. And an allegation involving a horse and sexual favors.

anger management

Musk’s short fuse is a legend. If something is wrong and it’s important to Musk, employees have learned to avoid his presence if possible.

In 2017, Musk was looking for someone to blame after his cutting-edge automation projects at Tesla’s Nevada battery factory began to slash the factory’s productivity.

According to Wired writer Charles Duhigg, in a story called “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk,” the CEO was apoplectic trying to figure out what was wrong and who was to blame when he summoned a young engineer to help him.

“Hey, buddy, that’s not working!” he shouted at the engineer, another employee told Duhigg. “Did you do this?”

“You mean, program the robot?” said the engineer. “Where to design this tool?”

“Did you do that?” Musk asked him.

“I don’t know what you are referring to? replied the engineer apologetically.

“You’re a f— idiot!” Musk yelled back. “Take out the f— and don’t come back!”

Tim Higgins’ 2021 Tesla book, “Power Play,” offers several different looks at how Musk expresses his anger. “Musk’s fury caused several executives to leave the company,” Higgins wrote, including Peter Rawlinson, the Model S development manager, who left Tesla to found electric car company Lucid Motors.

Asked about his temper, Musk said he didn’t shoot rage, but provided “clear and candid” feedback.

toxic avenger

A pattern: If Musk perceives he’s been upset, he does more than bubble up — he seeks revenge.

Musk’s quickness to unleash when injured was on display in the libel suit which came after a British diver suggested a mini-submarine developed by Musk to rescue young footballers trapped in a cave would not work and Musk responded by calling the diver a pedophile. (Musk won the case.)

More than once, he has shown the same spirit of retaliation towards employees who raised issues at one of his companies.

After Model S engineer Cristina Balan emailed Musk about what she saw as serious safety issues in product design, she was escorted to what she thought to be face to face with him. Instead, she was taken to a security room and fired.

For years, Balan has been trying to sue Tesla for defamation. But Tesla’s lawyers managed to prevent Balan’s evidence from being presented to a judge.

Another whistleblower, Martin Tripp, moved to Hungary to escape Musk’s wrath after the Insider news site published an article about excessive scrap metal waste at Tesla’s battery factory in 2018. Private investigators hired by Musk to identify the source named Tripp, a factory employee.

Tripp was fired. Tesla said it stole the company’s data. Musk then called a reporter to tell him he heard Tripp was going to the factory with a gun. The local sheriff’s department later said, no, he was miles away in Reno, unarmed and no proof he had one.

accidents happen

Twitter employees don’t work with dangerous, heavy machinery like factory workers do. Good thing, based on numerous reports of safety culture at Tesla over the years.

In May 2017, The Times detailed the safety record of the Tesla factory in Fremont, California. Tesla’s injury incident rate has exceeded that of some industries commonly associated with particularly hazardous work, including sawmills and slaughterhouses. Tesla didn’t dispute the numbers, but said it was “learning to be an automotive company” and “what matters is the future.”

The injury rate has improved. But in 2018, public radio’s investigative reporting program “Reveal” alleged that Tesla was leaving injuries off the books.

One of the ways Tesla reduced injuries, according to “Reveal,” was by denying ambulance service to some injured factory workers who requested it. Medical personnel have been warned not to call 911 without management’s permission.

“The electric car maker’s contract doctors rarely grant it, often insisting that seriously injured workers — including one who cut the top of a finger — be sent to a Lyft’s emergency room,” said ” Reveal,” citing five former medical clinics. employees of Tesla’s Fremont automobile assembly plant.

Lockdown clash

With COVID-19 sweeping the country in March 2020 and counties in California ordering “shelter-in-place” lockdowns, Musk defied the orders and kept the factory open.

Under official pressure, Musk temporarily closed the factory. In May, he announced the reopening of the factory. Employees could stay home, he said, but would not be paid.

County public health officer Erica Pan and other officials told him it was not safe. The factory will reopen, he said. If the officials didn’t like it, they could stop it. He called Pan “unelected and ignorant” and called the stay-at-home orders “fascist.” He threatened to move Tesla’s headquarters from California to Texas. And, in 2021, it did.

Health officials said at least several hundred workers at the Tesla factory had been infected with COVID.

union, hold

Tesla factories are union-free, but when Fremont workers tried to organize, Musk cracked down hard. Tesla was later cited by the National Labor Relations Board for repeatedly violating US labor law, including firing a union leader and forcing workers to remove their clothes with messages supporting the union. The company was also ordered to remove a tweet from Musk threatening the disappearance of employee stock options in the event of a union vote.

Border issues

Most companies discourage leaders from fraternizing too intimately with staff because of the messy conflict it can create. That didn’t stop Musk from secretly having twins with a senior executive at his brain implant company Neuralink, according to an Insider report.

Shivon Zilis, the 36-year-old executive, told Neuralink officials that the twins were born via in vitro fertilization, according to Reuters, and that she was not romantically involved with her 51-year-old billionaire boss. Musk said underpopulation is one of the biggest threats to civilization.

Zilis continued to work as Neuralink’s Director of Operations and Special Projects.

In another bizarre episode, Musk became ensnared in what became known as the horse-for-sex scandal.

Business Insider also revealed the story, which revolved around a lawsuit filed by a woman who said she was hired to provide massage services to the world’s richest man.

She claimed she was summoned by Musk aboard his private Gulfstream G650ER jet for a “full body massage” and Musk showed her his erect penis, then “touched her” and “offered to buy her a horse “in exchange for sex. SpaceX paid the woman $250,000 as part of a legal settlement.

hear no evil

Musk’s alleged crossing of personal lines with employees points to a larger problem: an apparent indifference or persistent blindness to race and gender issues in the workplace.

Former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak posted an essay online in 2021 describing a culture where sexism was rampant and the company did nothing to stop it. She described “countless men” making sexual advances. After a male co-worker “ran his hand over my shirt from the bottom of my waist to my chest,” she reported the incident but said no one followed up and the man stayed in his crew.

Shortly after, The Verge spoke to several former employees who supported the bulk of Kosak’s account and said they faced similar harassment and retaliation for reporting it.

SpaceX has not responded to The Verge’s allegations. The publication obtained an email written by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stating that the company takes sexual harassment seriously and that “we also know we can always do better.”

After the report of his alleged horse bid, SpaceX employees wrote an open letter criticizing Musk’s behavior and the distraction he created. Some of the employees behind the letter have been fired, according to a message from Shotwell obtained by The New York Times. In his letter, Shotwell said those who were asked to sign the letter felt “uncomfortable, intimidated and intimidated”.

At Tesla, black workers have for years filed well-documented complaints about racism in the factory. Earlier this year, the California Civil Rights Agency filed suit against the company on behalf of thousands of workers.

Black workers complained that managers called them monkeys and other racial slurs, including the routine use of the N-word. Some alleged that black workers were given the worst jobs, regardless of their qualifications. When complaining to human resources, several said it made things worse and some were fired.

Tesla disputed the workers’ accounts at the time, saying, “Tesla prohibits discrimination in any form.”

Musk was not directly involved in any of the complaints. Nor has he shown any signs of taking them any more seriously than he has in the past taken allegations of bias in his company’s workplaces or criticism of his own conduct. His response: an e-mail to workers advising victims of racism to have “thick skin”.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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