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Why Elon Musk’s Very Public Dismissal of a Disabled Employee Could Be Costly

4 minute read

Haraldur “Halli” Thorleifsson spent nine tense days unsure whether his job at Twitter had been terminated before he decided to tweet at owner Elon Musk on Monday, asking for an answer. What ensued was a public spat on the platform, during which Musk questioned Thorleifsson’s work ethic and disability, and accused him of seeking a “big payout.” Within a day, Musk was forced to backtrack and issue an apology to Thorleifsson, as it emerged that terminating his employment could be very costly for Twitter.

Thorleifsson joined Twitter when the company acquired his startup in 2021, under the leadership of co-founder and then CEO Jack Dorsey. He was celebrated by the media in Iceland, where he lives, for choosing to receive the purchase price as salary, rather than a lump sum, so that he could pay higher taxes in the country to support public services. Amid mass layoffs at Twitter, Thorleifsson tweeted on March 6 that he had lost systems access but had not been informed whether he was a Twitter employee, despite emails and calls to the company’s human resources department and, eventually, Musk himself. The fallout has led to speculation from Twitter users that the company would be on the hook for a large payout to Thorleifsson if it terminated his employment contract at a time when the company is taking drastic measures trying to save money.

“Let me know if you are going to pay what you owe me?” Thorleifsson tweeted during the exchange with Musk, without specifying the amount or terms of his contract. “I think you can afford it?”

Musk faced a wave of public criticism for his responses to Thorleifsson, which questioned and even appeared to mock the Icelander’s descriptions of his role. “The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) 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,” Musk tweeted about Thorleifsson on Tuesday. Thorleifsson addressed Elon’s remarks in a series of tweets, explaining how his disability—muscular dystrophy–affects him, later adding that he had since received notice from Twitter that his employment had been terminated.

It was only after intervention from another Twitter user, Daniel Houghton, on March 7 that Musk says he spoke to Thorleifsson “to figure out what’s real vs what I was told.”

Later that day, Musk tweeted, “I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. 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 has not commented on whether he plans to rejoin the company.

Thorleifsson, who was named Icelandic broadcaster RÚV’s Person of the Year in 2022, did, however, tweet on March 7 that he planned to open a restaurant in Reykjavik soon. He is also known for his philanthropy and for funding the construction of hundreds of ramps around Iceland—a cause close to Thorleifsson, who began using a wheelchair 20 years ago.

Twitter has been cutting costs with a series of staff reductions since Musk took ownership of the company. The most recent round of layoffs at Twitter reportedly affected about 200 employees—around 10% of the company’s workforce. The company employs around 2,000 people, compared with 7,500 that Twitter started with when Musk acquired the company last year.

Thorleifsson and Twitter did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment.

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