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 Time to call out Musk, Zuckerberg as robber barons

Based on the premise that all stakeholders are essentially “customers,” both Twitter and Meta are doing a poor job of customer service.

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are displaying some of the egregious behaviors of 19th-century robber barons, who ruled ruthlessly—often squashing customers and employees beneath their feet.

A citation addresses the offenses: “robber baron…pejorative term for one of the powerful 19th-century American industrialists and financiers who made fortunes by monopolizing huge industries through the formation of trusts, engaging in unethical business practices, exploiting workers, and paying little heed to their customers or competition.” 

I get that companies have to make hard economic decisions. But sometimes the way these decisions are presented to/inflicted upon stakeholders leaves very much to be desired.

A New York Times article frames the discussion: “Meta Lays Off More Than 11,000 Employees…The parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp reduced its work force by 13 percent and extended a hiring freeze through the first quarter of next year…On Wednesday, laid-off employees immediately lost access to most corporate systems, though their email accounts will remain active until the end of the day ‘so everyone can say farewell,’ Mr. Zuckerberg said…For those who lost their job in the United States, Meta said it would pay severance of 16 weeks of their base pay, along with two additional weeks for every year they worked at the company. Laid-off workers and their families will have health care paid for six months.”

The article continues, “Last week, Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, laid off roughly half the company’s 7,500 employees, saying the social media service was losing $4 million a day…[Meta] has been spending billions of dollars on metaverse-related products such as virtual-reality headsets, though such products are niche and there is no guarantee that people will flock to them. There was growing concern that Meta had spent too much on trying to realize Mr. Zuckerberg’s ambitions, the people said, at the cost of the core business of social networking…The divisions that were not cut as steeply included engineers working on projects related to the metaverse, the immersive online world that Mr. Zuckerberg has bet big on, two people with knowledge of the matter said.”

Given that Zuckerberg offered US workers 16 weeks of severance and two additional weeks for each year at the company plus paid healthcare for six months, what’s the problem, you might ask? After all, there have doubtless been rumors and warnings of impending changes; and this appears to be a generous exit package.

The problem in part lies with qualitative factors. Questions that come to mind: 1. How were the layoffs handled? Were there efforts to address the announcement via something less draconian than a terse email (e.g., department meetings and discussion to give employees a chance to vent, ask questions, and help determine what their next steps need to be depending on prospects to be rehired); 2. Could Zuckerberg and his minions have waited until the New Year (or at least post-Thanksgiving) to do the layoffs? After all, Meta evidently has plenty of money to pay for such Zuckerberg pet projects as virtual-reality headsets and many of the people involved in metaverse development; 3. Building upon the previous question, could the company have maintained most if not all of its workforce by slowing down the pace elsewhere, thereby potentially eliminating the need for at least some layoffs?

It appears that it was handled somewhat like a slam/dunk at the end of an extremely stressful year—given political and social upheaval, economic challenges, and chronic stress fueled by the pandemic two years ago. Is it possible that Meta could have found a different way forward that, while not giving as much satisfaction to shareholders, would have shown emotional intelligence and committed “customer service” to employees?

In the case of Musk, where do we start? His obvious missteps from the get-go have upended the workforce, left customers wondering what to expect, and created confusion and anxiety among advertisers about whether or not their investment is sound. Other stakeholders also aren’t getting the customer service they deserve.

According to, “Musk recently weighed in on Twitter, saying, ‘Everyone exited was offered 3 months of severance, which is 50% more than legally required.’” His tweet also said, “Regarding Twitter’s reduction in force, unfortunately there is no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day.”

On November 9, CBS News reported, “Elon Musk’s net worth has dropped to an estimated $195.6 billion, according to Forbes.” Forbes added, “It’s only the second time since October 1, 2021 that Musk has been worth less than $200 billion.”

First of all, boo hoo to the drop. I’m guessing Musk is lamenting the loss mightily. H’mmm, maybe if he used the experience as a chance to display emotional intelligence for his workforce—which also is losing—he would have made a different choice. And perhaps he would look less like a robber baron.

Looking at the math, if Twitter is losing $4 million daily, that adds up to $360 million over a 90-day period if losses hold steady. (Of course, with the way he’s handling everything, that well may skyrocket.) That’s in the neighborhood of 1/6 of 1% of his entire fortune. That’s a very small percentage of his entire worth.

Given that he’s reportedly rehiring many of those laid off because their departure has created huge operational and technical problems, Musk certainly has both the willingness and ability to spend the money needed. (He’s allegedly also working everyone to the bone and demanding a fulltime return to the office, except for approved exceptions.)

How about showing some emotional intelligence in this realm, Elon? A 90-day extension would get everyone well into the New Year, at which time a layoff might not feel quite as draconian. Showing some heart might even generate some goodwill, build morale, and bolster Musk’s image in the eyes of all stakeholders.

So many bean counters, so little caring for stakeholders and the level of “customer service” they are afforded. Just because robber barons can get away with it doesn’t mean they should.


Mark Lusky Communications helps companies that honor customers, workers, communities, the environment, and stakeholder governance tell their story to the world. Interested? Let’s talk.

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