Musk dust-up with former employee highlights challenges facing disabled workers
Elon Musk once again seemingly said the quiet part out loud. In a tweet last week, which he later apologized for, the Twitter CEO claimed a former employee used a disability as an excuse not to work.
Why it matters: Most employers know better than to open themselves up to legal liability by tweeting something about a worker's disability — especially something derogatory — but that doesn't mean Musk's kind of thinking is unusual.
- "They just keep that conversation offline," says Mia Ives-Rublee, director for the disability justice initiative at the Center for American Progress.
Catch up quick: The Musk situation started when a former Twitter employee, Haraldur Thorleifsson, started tweeting at the CEO to figure out if he still had a job at the company — he was locked out of his work accounts, and couldn't get a straight answer from the company as to his employment status.
- Musk replied, and they had a back-and-forth where Thorleifsson explained his job. Musk mocked him in return, with a clip from the movie "Office Space."
- Later, in a reply to someone else, Musk wrote that Thorleifsson "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."
- Thorleifsson refuted Musks' claims, explaining that he has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair — and that the design company he founded was purchased by Twitter in 2021.
- Instead of taking a large payout from Twitter, Thorleifsson took a job with the company — a move that was celebrated in his home country because he'd wind up paying higher taxes, as the AP notes.
- Finally, Musk wound up apologizing to Thorleifsson for "my misunderstanding of his situation" — and offered him his job back.
Zoom out: It's not uncommon for an employer to disbelieve a worker when they say they have a disability, said Ives-Rublee.
- The issue is becoming more complex now, as some workers with disabilities are being asked to return to office, where they'll need certain accommodations.
- Ives-Rublee mentioned one person she's working with who is having trouble getting permission to bring his service dog to work.
The bottom line: Employers should slow down before making assumptions about a worker's ability.
- "Employers frequently dismiss disabled people without taking the time to understand how we share our talents, and consequently employers suffer from the loss of brilliant people like Thorleifsson," Haben Girma, a disability rights advocate, told Axios in an email.