What It's Really Like Working for Elon Musk During Tesla Layoffs

It's not actually scary because it's all part of changing the world—and the boss knows what he's doing, right?

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Jun 15 2018, 5:46pm

Elon Musk in April. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO)

On Tuesday, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors who serves as a sort of high priest of the tech world and is perhaps more importantly somehow dating Canadian musician Grimes, announced in a tweet that he would be laying off 9 percent of his company's workforce. The cuts, he said, were not a profit-motivated decision—he noted the company hasn't been profitable in 15 years—but rather an attempt to sew up redundancies. For the most part, his statement was the type of boilerplate corporate speak that you might hear from any CEO in modern America. What was different were the reactions from at least some Tesla workers who had suddenly deemed themselves expendable. Much like with any pronouncement from Musk, the move was lauded by many of his fawning fans—including, as Bloomberg reported, a handful of the very people who just lost their jobs.



"I was laid off from Tesla yesterday and although it hurts (a lot!), it is the right thing for the company," tweeted one newly unemployed acolyte. "I don't regret giving all I had and in a way bidding adieu is my last contribution. I'll be cheering Tesla on knowing I did my part. Thanks for the years of memories!"

"Thanks for the opportunity, Elon! Eye on the mission. Will always be proud to say I worked for Tesla," added another. Dozens of others—employees and otherwise—rushed to the billionaire’s defense online, assuring him that they knew this must have been a tough decision for him, but he had to do what he had to do. After all, this is saving the world—what with leading the charge to renewable energy in construction and transportation—we're talking about here.

The response certainly did nothing to temper the air of cult-like obsessiveness surrounding everything Musk and Tesla related. If this is how the people he fires act, one might wonder, what do the people who still work there think about their benevolent overlord? We decided to find out by asking a young Tesla worker—his job there is his first out of college—who said he worried he might be fired himself by the end of the week. The employee described in an interview Thursday what the general morale around the company was like at the moment and what he thought about the cult of personality around Musk, painting a vivid picture of the increasingly dystopian front-lines of late capitalism. For perhaps obvious reasons—in addition to the usual concerns one might have about speaking candidly about their boss, Musk has recently expressed serious hostility toward the media—the employee declined to share his name, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the situation there.

VICE: What was the atmosphere around Tesla when people heard about the layoffs?
Current Tesla Employee:
I found out when I came into work, on Tuesday, basically the day his email came out. I think they're still going to be firing more people up until Friday. I don't think they're going to let everybody go at the same time, I think they're going department by department. I do most of my work with people who are directly involved with production—a lot of the associates on the line, most of them aren't affected. I saw a few people who worked on the line were fired—or, sorry, "let go," to use a more appropriate term. Some of those were most likely performance related issues—it wasn't a random These people need to go! thing. It seems there was a rhyme or reason for these people being let go.

There were a few people online who seemed to be almost sucking up to Elon in his tweet, saying, essentially: "Thank you for firing me, sir."
It's not a cult of personality there. A lot of people take a lot of the things that Elon says on Twitter or in media and they kind of extrapolate that into, Hey this is what the company is like from the top down. To be honest, since I've worked there, I've met a lot of talented, well-to-do people and they're there making a good living. Most of them don't even pay attention to the stuff he tweets or any of the negative publicity, whether it's about racism in the workplace that gets talked about, or the issues with production numbers. Pretty much any article that's been released, most people brush it off. If there are any problems that are going on, they're being dealt with. Most of the time, those articles come out a few weeks or maybe months after that particular thing happened and we just hear about it on the tail-end.

So it’s not a bunch of Elon fans all feeling privileged to just bask in his grace?
As far as the cult thing is concerned, everybody that comes into work there comes in to do their job. I don't see people going, I work here because I want to appease Elon or, Tesla is the greatest thing ever. It's a job. Everybody that I know, they're paid to do what they're paid to do. To comment on what the person was implying in that tweet there, I don't think he was saying, I'm glad I was fired. I'm sure he was bent out of shape about being fired. But he has this inner monologue to himself saying, OK, I helped get this company from point a to point b, and that's good enough for me. I personally feel like if he goes to get another job, he's going to get hired pretty quickly. The people I know who've been fired or quit—generally they've been hired pretty quickly, because it’s good experience working here.

Are you worried about being fired?
Anything could happen on a day to day basis. I could do something stupid or something I wasn’t supposed to without knowing it. With any job, you could get fired at any time. At this moment in time, the layoffs are happening [and] it seems to be on a person to person basis. Who is this person? What do they do? Is what they do replaceable or necessary? I’m pretty sure I won’t be fired. I have until Friday I guess. My bosses assured me that's not the case.

A friend of mine got fired, or let go—I keep saying "get fired." Personally, at this point I'm not sure if it's a firing or let go. I'm not sure if they're getting severance or not. I'm sure he's bummed out I haven't talked to him yet. It was all hitting me at once. (Editor's note: In his email to the company about the layoffs, Musk said, "In order to minimize the impact, Tesla is providing significant salary and stock vesting (proportionate to length of service) to those we are letting go."

Are you under a lot of pressure working there?
It's manufacturing, [so] there's always pressure to get numbers going. As far as I can see, it gets magnified, because it's Tesla and everything is under a microscope. You can say you'd see similar conditions at another plant, but Tesla, because of how eccentric Elon is, and the mission statement that he had, what he's trying to get done, it goes without saying there's going to be a lot of people that are going to be naysayers. I don't personally care whether or not people believe in him, whether or not the people who work there do. A job is a job. You're going to get stressed if things aren't going 100 percent smooth no matter the case.

As far as I can see there are people who are definitely getting a little over-worked, but it's not necessarily like they're being forced to. A lot of the times I see it as these people are coming in on the weekends because they want to get the work they've been asked to do done. Sometimes I end up working six or seven days a week. I maybe get a day off every other week. Sometimes it's a normal five-day week. It's just a matter of: I enjoy what I do. I feel like most of the people who work there who didn’t really enjoy what they were doing—they’d be working somewhere else.

You seem to think it’s like any other plant. Are there things that seem weird to you?
The thing is, this is the first manufacturing job I’ve had—I've never been in a work environment like this before. For all I know, this could be exactly how it is at Toyota or Ford or something else. Since Tesla is technically a technology start up first [and] then a car manufacturer second, the environment is a little bit different. The thing that might be strange is there's an emphasis on not having to follow corporate structure. If you need to talk to someone, you don’t have to go up the chain—you go straight to that person. Occasionally, you'll see Elon go line-side and check out what's going on on the line. If there's a problem that needs to be fixed, he'll go there and fix it. I’ve seen him do it countless times. I see him walking around—everyone is like, "Oh man, it's Elon." But there are a lot of workers who don't even know who he is. That's my whole thing with the cult thing—these are just normal people who got a job in manufacturing. Whether or not if they know who he is or care about his message or not, if they feel strongly about what Tesla does in a positive or negative way, that's up to them.

Elon does seem to have some pretty devoted fans though.
Just the fact that people consider him the real-life Iron Man, I think, is kind of dumb. Not dumb in that it's unbelievable, but everybody has to make some comic book or video game reference. People who are fans of Elon—they can be whoever they want to be, but honestly some of those people don't help, because it makes a lot of people who want to be involved look stupid. To each their own. You do see a lot of fanboys. I don't think of it as they're fans of what Tesla is doing.

Where do you stand on the issue of unionizing the workforce there? Musk has expressed opposition to the idea in the past, and may even be investigated by the feds over a tweet that seemed to discourage it.
I have not worked in unions myself, but I know a lot of people who were working at the factory before, so I understand the positive and negatives of what unions are. As far as the unions situation, it's something we don't really talk about much. I personally don't see a union being a positive thing. In specific circumstances, possibly this one, I'm sure there might be a case if Tesla did unionize, it could be positive. I just look back at what happened with Nummi: Most of them, after Nummi shut down, didn't have anywhere to work after that. That’s the nature of having your pay increased to the point where nobody can hire you for that same pay: You're kid of stuck. A lot of those people who worked at Nummi didn’t have many skills outside of the one or two tasks they were told to do.

I don't have any issues with unions in most cases. I’ve heard some people on the line talk about it. The biggest issue is California is very expensive to live in. You almost have to be making $30-40 an hour to afford, comfortably, a house or living in California. That’s not ideal. California is expensive in general—it's not Tesla's fault the area is expensive to live in. Most of the people I work with don't live nearby; they live on the outskirts. It's cheaper to live out near Sacramento.

Musk said the layoffs were necessary. But he’s worth something like $20 billion. Does anyone find that sort of contradiction insulting?
Tesla hasn't posted a profit in like 15 years. From what I’m gathering, it’s not so much a cost-saving thing it’s more of a.... well, obviously there is cost-saving element, that is a fact. But as far as I'm seeing, the thought process is: Is this job necessary or can this be accomplished with fewer people? Or: Is this person performing the duties they're supposed to be doing? Essentially trying to cut out the need for middle-manning. The amount of money they're saving from these layoffs is inconsequential. There are certain people that did [get] let go that I would say I felt their contribution was very valuable—and on the other hand there were people I noticed that their work could have been done by somebody else, or by fewer people. It's manufacturing, they have quotas to get done. If you're not performing… It happens everywhere. It just so happens Tesla is Tesla and you're gonna hear about the layoffs and it’s going to be magnified by a million as compared to say, McDonalds. McDonalds are letting a bunch of people go and nobody is talking about replacing people working on the friers with robots.

We may be a little different here, but my take would be: Fuck you, you have billions, you can afford to keep my job.
I can't make a determination to say everybody deserves… I definitely believe, as long as you exhibit the drive and you have the experience and you have… As soon as I graduated from college I got this job, so I thought of it as: I worked hard, relatively hard, to get to the position I'm in and I'm happy with the pay I get. Yes, I could say everybody deserves to have a well paying job, but it all depends on how you worked up to that point.

Your point is understandable. When people say: Oh, these billionaires don't deserve all this money and don't deserve to be where they are, they should be able to afford to pay people, I'm sure in some capacity that's true. There are cases where I could say a CEO is making millions more than people under him who work harder—I can understand that. But those people still worked to get to where they are. I have no say in determining whether or not they should or should not have that money.

In Elon's case, it's not like he's asking all these people to give him money. He's still a businessman and he's pouring a lot of his own money into the company. If you viewed it in the scope of somebody running a small business, you determine how much you get paid. If it's your business, obviously, you feel like you should get paid more than the people who work for you.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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