Twitter Employees Search for Answers as Musk Deal Takes Shape


In January 2020, thousands of Twitter employees gathered in Houston for a corporate summit called #OneTeam. During the event, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive at the time, revealed he had invited a surprise guest. Then, with a wave and a smile, Elon Musk appeared on giant screens above the stage. The crowd cheered, clapped and pumped fists. “We love you,” one employee shouted.

Inside Twitter today, surprise announcements about Mr. Musk land differently. Employees said they have largely stopped celebrating the richest man in the world since he declared his intent earlier this month to buy Twitter, scrap its content moderation policies, and transform the publicly traded company into a private one.

Twitter employees also said they are frustrated because they weren’t hearing much from their management about what was going on with the takeover fight and what it meant for them, even as Twitter closed in on a deal with Mr. Musk on Monday morning. They asked their chief executive, Parag Agrawal. They asked Elon Musk himself in questions sent on Twitter. Some even went to Charles Schwab, the financial firm that manages their stock options, for clarity about the impact a sale of the company would have on them.

But they were not getting very many answers, said 11 Twitter employees who asked to not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, even as it became clear that they could soon find themselves reporting to Mr. Musk. On Sunday, Twitter’s board met to discuss Mr. Musk’s offer and was said to be seriously considering it. Some employees vented their frustrations with the continued silence on Twitter Monday morning, while others commiserated in private chats.

This kind of silence is routine in takeover fights. As the board of directors confers with bankers, lawyers and expensive public relations firms, employees are often kept in the dark. But for employees at Twitter, a company that has billed itself as the world’s town square, finding out what is happening to their company primarily through Twitter, the service they built, has been particularly embittering.

After years of leadership squabbles, demands for change from activist investors and the boundary-testing tweets of former President Donald J. Trump, Twitter’s more than 7,000 employees are accustomed to turmoil. But some of them say the takeover bid by the mercurial billionaire is hitting them in ways other company crises have not.

Employees said they worried that Mr. Musk would undo the years of work they have put into cleaning up the toxic corners of the platform, upend their stock compensation in the process of taking the company private, and disrupt Twitter’s culture with his unpredictable management style and abrupt proclamations.

But Mr. Musk also has fans among Twitter’s rank-and-file, and some employees have welcomed his bid. In an internal Slack message seen by The New York Times that asked if employees were excited about Mr. Musk, about 10 people responded with a “Yes” emoji. A Twitter spokesman declined to comment.

If Twitter is worth buying, much of its value is in the employees who build and manage the service, said David Larcker, a professor of accounting and corporate governance at Stanford University. “The wild card is, what if it becomes a very different company than they thought they were working for? It’s an uncomfortable working relationship,” he said.

Mr. Musk has made some of his intentions clear in regulatory filings, tweets and public appearances: The company must scrap nearly all of its moderation policies, which ban content like violent threats, harassment and spam. It must provide more transparency about the algorithm it uses to boost tweets in users’ newsfeeds. And it must become a private company.

Twitter has been expanding its content moderation policies since 2008, when its 25th employee was hired specifically to combat abuse on its platform. The teams overseeing moderation and safety have now grown to hundreds of employees.

Many Twitter employees feel personally invested in the company’s effort to encourage healthy conversation — even if they do not directly work on content moderation — and have pressed executives to crack down further on hate speech and misinformation, six employees said. They see Mr. Musk’s proposal to revert to Twitter’s early, lax approach as a rebuke of their work.

But other employees have argued in internal messages seen by the Times that their co-workers have shifted too far to the left side of the political spectrum, making employees who support Mr. Musk’s plans too uncomfortable to speak up. In a worker-run survey of nearly 200 Twitter employees on Blind, an anonymous workplace review app, 44 percent said they were neutral on Mr. Musk. Twenty-seven percent said they loved Mr. Musk, while 27 percent said they hated him.

Although executives and employees at Twitter have agreed with Mr. Musk about changes to its algorithm, that work is in its earliest stages and could take years to complete. That could test something Mr. Musk is not particularly known for — patience.

One of the top concerns among Twitter workers is whether they will take a financial hit from Mr. Musk’s plans. Many Twitter employees make 50 percent or more of their total compensation from Twitter stock. If Mr. Musk succeeds in buying Twitter at his proposed price of $54.20 per share, employees said they feared missing out on the long-term value of their stock.

In an attempt to quell financial worries, Sean Edgett, Twitter’s general counsel, told employees that any potential buyer would likely be required to keep employee equity “as is” or provide equivalent compensation, like a cash award.

Mr. Edgett stressed that employees should not view his guidance as insight into the deal-making. “This is meant to provide some peace of mind and explain how these things typically work, not because we believe there will be one outcome versus another,” Mr. Edgett wrote in messages to employees reviewed by The Times.

Twitter has been on a hiring spree, spending $630 million on stock-based compensation in 2021, a 33 percent increase from the previous year. Twitter predicted in a February earnings report that it would spend between $900 million and $925 million on stock-based compensation this year.

But Mr. Musk’s campaign has also begun to undercut Twitter’s attempts to recruit new employees, according to internal documents outlining the company’s hiring efforts that were viewed by The Times. Prospective hires have expressed skepticism about Mr. Musk’s plans to transform Twitter and upend its content moderation, those documents said.

Recruits have also fretted that the shares included in their offer letters could quickly become devalued if Mr. Musk succeeded in taking Twitter private.

Twitter’s recruiting problem could balloon further if current employees quit, as some have warned they would do if Mr. Musk takes over. Other employees worried about layoffs or the loss of work visas under Mr. Musk, and raised questions about these issues with Mr. Agrawal.

Managers responsible for hiring have been asked to keep track of how many prospective employees turn down job offers because of fears about Mr. Musk, according to internal communications reviewed by The Times.

Employees have also wondered: Could he also move Twitter’s headquarters to Texas, as he did with Tesla? Could he end the company’s flexibility about returning to the office, which has become a selling point for employees and recruits? Mr. Musk, after all, fought with officials in California to keep his car factory open early in the pandemic.

Mr. Agrawal has tried to calm his work force. In a question-and-answer session with employees held the day Mr. Musk announced he intended to buy Twitter, Mr. Agrawal declined to share details about how the company would respond to Mr. Musk but urged employees to remain focused on the things they could control, like their day-to-day work, according to employees who attended the meeting.

Mr. Agrawal has not addressed the entire company since then, two employees said. The company is set to report its first-quarter earnings on Thursday.

The stress at the mention of Mr. Musk is a stark contrast to the welcome he enjoyed from employees two years ago. Although some employees said they were skeptical of Mr. Musk at the 2020 event, many of them listened attentively as he gave his advice for Twitter: The company should step up its moderation, he said, by doing more to weed out bots and scammers from the actual humans using the platform.

“By the way, do you want to run Twitter?” Mr. Dorsey asked Mr. Musk.

The assembled Twitter employees laughed. Mr. Musk did not immediately answer.

Ryan Mac and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.