Some of us are old enough to remember the bad old days of startups that regarded children as impediments to parents being on call 24/7. I well remember being asked to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning at home while engineers rebooted a startup’s system; when the baby began to cry, an executive demanded angrily, “Can you make that noise stop?!”
Employers have since made amazing strides toward making workplaces family-friendly, including work at home policies – the latter getting a huge if unintended boost from the pandemic. But since October, multi-billionaire Elon Musk turned his back on all that in an astonishing show of contempt for working parents and caregivers at Twitter, his latest acquisition.
Before Musk’s takeover, employees at Twitter had been given the right to work at home full-time from anywhere in the country. Musk changed that overnight by ordering all employees to return to the office immediately or be fired. On Twitter, employees lambasted Musk for giving them no time to arrange new caregiving schedules for their children or aging relatives.
As an Observer.com piece on Tesla commented, “Musk is against remote work even though a growing body of research suggests flexible office policies help support and retain employees with families…An April 2021 survey by consulting firm McKinsey found parents with kids under the age of five were most likely to prefer primarily remote working models, with only 8 percent suggesting they wanted to be fully back in an office.” Another study found that mothers working remotely were 32 percent less likely to think about leaving their jobs.
Eliminating work at home followed on the heels of Musk laying off half of Twitter’s workforce. One former Twitter contractor (who, like thousands of other Twitter contractors, was terminated without notice) was frantic over how she was going to feed her children or pay the rent. As posts and Tweets piling up from former employees and contractors make clear, Musk has undermined the mental health of his employees at Twitter, just as he has done at Tesla and Space X.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Musk has long been known as a toxic boss: union-busting, vindictive, abusive, and a bully, according to a recent business story in the Los Angeles Times, and a civil rights lawsuit accuses Tesla of “rampant” racism. At Tesla and SpaceX, he also required employees to work “at least” 40 hours in the office or resign. He has also been accused of other actions hostile specifically to working parents: a 2015 biography of him reports that he scolded an employee for missing a work event due to the birth of his child. At Tesla, at least two women reported they were fired after reporting they were pregnant.
Although Musk has fathered nine children, critics say he does not see the value of flexible or remote work for parents.
“The flexibility afforded by hybrid and remote models is a critical tool for people who are parents, and we know that women shoulder the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities (still). One way to create a level playing field is to offer flexible scheduling and workspace options,” wrote Matt Logan, Navigator’s vice-president of engineering, in a LinkedIn article called Why Elon Musk Should Tweet Less and Parent More. “As a leader, parent, and partner – Elon is failing. He is creating an example that, if followed by his 97 million (minus 10% for the bots) Twitter followers, will put women at a further disadvantage in both technology and the broader workforce.”
Discussing his bullying behavior as a boss, some psychologists and psychiatrists have speculated that mental illness, likely untreated, is at work: Musk himself has said he is “bipolar,” although he added that perhaps wasn’t medically proven. Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, states flatly that Musk suffers from bipolar disorder, “as evidenced by his volatility and mood swings.” She attributes this illness to growing up in a dysfunctional family and “relentless bullying from his schoolmates that landed him in the hospital.”
In a 2015 book about Musk, he himself talks about being abused as a child: “For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the [expletive] out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well.”
From all accounts, it sounds like Musk had a hellishly traumatic childhood and would benefit from seeing a mental health clinician and “dealing with his demons from childhood,” as Lieberman suggested. However, neither childhood trauma nor bipolar disorder justifies his star turn as a toxic boss; it does suggest that he may need to get help for his early trauma and other issues and rethink the way he treats his workers.