Technology

Elon Musk speaking at Tesla Investor Day. 
Courtesy: Tesla

Elon Musk on Tuesday backed down from his attacks on a disabled Twitter employee who was laid off by the company and apologized for what he called a “misunderstanding.”

On Tuesday, the Twitter CEO questioned the work performance of Haraldur Thorleifsson — who goes by “Halli” — who he said has “done almost no work for the past four months.” Musk is also the CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla.

“I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation,” Musk tweeted late Tuesday. “It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful.”

“He is considering remaining at Twitter,” Musk added.

Thorleifsson, a disabled Icelandic entrepreneur, found himself drawn into a war of words with Musk after asking about the status of his employment. Thorleifsson and Twitter, which no longer has a communications department, did not respond to questions from CNBC on the spat by the time of publication.

On Monday, Thorleifsson, 45, tweeted Musk, saying that he had been locked out of his work computer for several days and failed to get a response from Twitter’s human resources department on whether he had been fired.

He suggested he may have been one of 200 employees reportedly let go by the company in February. Thorleifsson lives and works in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik with his wife and two children.

Musk, an avid user of Twitter, replied by asking Thorleifsson, “What work have you been doing?” to which Thorleifsson responded saying he saved the company $500,000 on a software-as-a-service contract and led prioritization of design projects.

When Musk probed for more details, Thorleifsson identified the SaaS contract he saved the company money on as the design platform Figma and said his prioritization work related to “all active design projects.”

Musk proceeded to respond with two laughing face emojis and later tweeted a link to a clip from “Office Space,” a comedy movie that parodies office working culture, where an employee is asked, “What would you say you do here?”

Following the back-and-forth with Musk, Thorleifsson said he was informed by Twitter’s head of human resources that he had been sacked.

Musk proceeded to criticize Thorleifsson over his work performance at the company, saying he “did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm.”

If an employee is having to ask their boss via Twitter if they still have a job or not, something has clearly gone pretty wrong.
Matt Monette
U.K. and Ireland Country Lead, Deel

Billy Markus, co-creator of dogecoin and an ally of Musk, expressed disapproval of Musk’s tweets. In a since-deleted response to Markus, Musk said, “He’s the worst, sorry.”

After a Twitter user said he had worked with Thorleifsson directly and found his work ethic “next level,” Musk says he gave Thorleifsson a video call “to figure out what’s real vs what I was told.” Musk then apologized and suggested Thorleifsson was considering staying at Twitter.

Matt Monette, U.K. and Ireland country lead at human resources platform Deel, said there was a “greater need for effective internal communications,” as tech layoffs increase while remote work is becoming more commonplace.

“If an employee is having to ask their boss via Twitter if they still have a job or not, something has clearly gone pretty wrong,” Monette told CNBC via email. “Employers must make sure they abide by the rules in different countries.”

The incident is one of the most bizarre developments to date in the saga surrounding Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Musk agreed to buy the social media site last year for $44 billion. He has since sought to cut costs dramatically in a bid to make it a profitable venture.

As part of that strategy, Musk laid off thousands of Twitter’s employees. It cut another 200 jobs last month, according to a report from The New York Times, taking its total staff count down to 2,000 from roughly 7,500 in October.

Person of the year

Thorleifsson was brought into Twitter as a senior director of product design after the sale of his company Ueno, a digital brand design agency, to Twitter in 2021. He suffers from muscular dystrophy, a disease that weakens muscles over time. Thorleifsson explained his disability has made it harder for him to do manual work for extended periods of time without his hands starting to cramp.

According to Icelandic Review, Thorleifsson was crowned Iceland’s “person of the year” in 2022 by several Icelandic media outlets, in part due to the sale of Ueno and his efforts to install wheelchair ramps across the country.

He says part of the reason why he sold the company — which he described as being on unfavorable financial terms — was that his disability made it harder for him to do manual work.

Thorleifsson says he chose to be paid the deal price as salary since, this way, he could pay more in taxes to contribute to public services.

If he took the money as a lump sum, it would have been treated as an investment and he would have paid a 22% capital gains tax. However, by taking it as salary, he opted to pay the higher 46% income tax rate instead.

Thorleifsson said he was in the dark about whether he will receive severance pay. “Companies let people go, that’s within their rights,” Thorleifsson said on Twitter. “They usually tell people about it but that’s seemingly the optional part at Twitter now.”

It is not yet clear what he will decide to do next — although he said earlier Tuesday that he was planning to open a restaurant named after his mother in downtown Reykjavik “very soon.”

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