Elon Musk’s disability shaming shows vulnerable employees’ struggles

Elon Musk has apologized for publicly mocking a former Twitter worker’s incapacity, however the on-line spat highlights the struggles that susceptible staff, together with these with disabilities, face within the office.

On Tuesday, Musk publicly apologized to Haraldur Thorleifsson, an Icelandic entrepreneur who joined Twitter in 2021 when the social media firm purchased his design agency. He was fired throughout the firm’s most up-to-date layoffs a couple of weeks in the past.

Musk’s apology got here after a collection of backwards and forwards posts Monday and Tuesday wherein Thorleifsson requested for readability on his employment standing whereas Musk repeatedly quizzed him on his position on the firm. The dialog took a flip for the more severe when Musk concluded that Thorleifsson “did no precise work” at Twitter and that he had used an excuse that “he had a incapacity that prevented him from typing.”

Thorleifsson, who labored as a center supervisor in Twitter’s design workforce in a task that hardly ever required typing, defined in a follow-up submit that he had muscular dystrophy, a degenerative illness affecting his muscle mass that has left him confined to a wheelchair for the previous 20 years.

Whereas Musk’s conduct was stunning, it wasn’t technically unlawful or a violation of the People with Disabilities Act, incapacity legislation specialists inform Fortune. Nevertheless it reveals how unhealthy bosses have huge latitude within the office, particularly with regards to how they deal with susceptible staff.

Thorleifsson didn’t instantly reply to Fortune’s request for remark. Twitter, which has eradicated most of its PR division, additionally didn’t reply.

Worry of the ‘incapacity con’

Musk’s on-line feedback about Thorleifsson had been an disagreeable solution to work together with an worker—present or former. However technically, the Twitter CEO didn’t break any legal guidelines, authorized specialists mentioned.

“It was very impolite, however it’s not unlawful,” Doron Dorfman, a professor at Seton Corridor College who focuses on incapacity and worker discrimination legislation, instructed Fortune. As a result of Thorleifsson was the one who disclosed the specifics of his incapacity, and until he has proof Twitter fired him for his incapacity, Musk’s offensive feedback seemingly aren’t grounds for a profitable lawsuit, Dorfman mentioned.

However the situation speaks to a much bigger office concern that normally flies underneath the radar and doesn’t get a lot consideration on-line. Musk’s feedback about Thorleifsson symbolize what Dorfman calls “concern of the incapacity con,” or suspicion that staff with entry to particular lodging are benefiting from the hand that feeds them.

“It is a nice instance of it as a result of Musk actually form of used all of the tropes about staff with a incapacity,” Dorfman mentioned, including that an employer accusing an worker of mendacity their manner out of labor due to a incapacity is frequent for susceptible employees.

The share of People with disabilities collaborating within the workforce has elevated over the previous decade, from 17.8% in 2012 to 21.3% in 2022, in line with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Distant work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged that development as working from dwelling allowed these with bodily disabilities and immunodeficiencies to hitch the workforce in larger numbers than ever. Hiring folks with disabilities, whether or not remotely or in-person, may also be a savvy enterprise selection, as a 2018 Accenture research discovered that corporations with insurance policies geared in direction of hiring extra staff with disabilities and who double down on making workplaces accessible usually tend to have increased revenue margins and income.

However at the same time as extra People with disabilities have piled into the workforce, many have additionally turn into susceptible to bullying and condescension. Dorfman present in a 2019 paper that round 60% of People with disabilities mentioned that others query the legitimacy of their situation and whether or not they truly require lodging. This is applicable each to these with seen disabilities, resembling Thorleifsson, in addition to invisible ones, which embrace these with immune deficiency ailments.

“Folks aren’t actually saying these items on Twitter, however disabled staff might be made to really feel like their requests are ridiculous,” Katherine MacFarlane, a lawyer and legislation professor in Baton Rouge who makes a speciality of anti-discrimination legislation, instructed Fortune. “There’s an abundance of microaggressions and simply flat-out refusals to make lodging, however I’ve heard the form of stuff Elon mentioned, mentioned in numerous alternative ways all through my life.”

Elon Musk’s unhealthy boss rep

Two issues make Musk’s interplay with Thorleifsson stand out from the various related conditions susceptible staff undergo day by day within the office. First, the encounter was extremely public, with Musk’s tweet that linked Thorleifsson’s work ethic to his incapacity garnering over 110,000 likes and over 6,000 retweets. Second, and extra concerningly for Musk, it isn’t the one incident wherein the Twitter CEO has publicly mocked his personal staff.

Even earlier than taking on Twitter, Musk was well-known for his demanding management fashion at Tesla and SpaceX, each of which he presently runs as CEO. However within the yr since buying Twitter, he has taken the idea of a temperamental boss to a brand new stage.

In April, quickly after proposing his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, Musk went on-line to assault the corporate’s then-executives. In November, Musk additionally publicly feuded with a Twitter worker on-line after which introduced the employee’s dismissal. Final month, Musk additionally reportedly fired an worker who mentioned the explanation Musk’s Twitter account was getting fewer reactions from customers was that folks weren’t as occupied with him anymore.

As for Thorleifsson, he wasn’t even the primary worker who Musk attacked by way of a incapacity. In November, after a couple of dozen Twitter employees had been reportedly fired for criticizing Musk, he sarcastically mentioned that one in every of them had a “tragic case of grownup onset Tourette’s.”  

Specialists say that Musk’s frequent use of the social media platform to berate staff might be dangerous, particularly if he resorts to tropes to take action.

“Seeing such a strong particular person put these ideas on the market on such an accessible platform, it actually represents a lot that folks with disabilities take care of within the office,” MacFarlane mentioned. “He was working by means of each stereotype: ‘You don’t want the cash. You get it from someplace else. You’re faking your incapacity. Do you even do any work?’”

In his public apology to Thorleifsson Tuesday, Musk mentioned the previous worker was contemplating remaining at Twitter. Whereas nobody can say why Musk uncharacteristically determined to apologize, authorized concerns could have performed a task.

“If the worker decides finally to sue for incapacity discrimination, Musk’s feedback might be very robust direct proof to bias in opposition to folks with disabilities at Twitter. I consider that with a purpose to be secure, Musk took a step again after probably discussing it along with his authorized workforce. It’s actually about taking precautions,” Seton Corridor’s Dorfman mentioned.

Employers apologizing after berating an worker for a incapacity is rare, specialists say, however that’s largely as a result of these conditions hardly ever if ever get as a lot publicity as a web-based dialog with Musk does.

“There’s been an uproar over it, however it’s straightforward to get mad at Elon. It’s more durable to make day-to-day modifications and to assist the people with disabilities in your on a regular basis life,” Macfarlane mentioned.

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