Elon Musk is known for sending emails that simply say 'WTF' — and an insider says they cause 'huge scrambles' at Tesla

Joshua Lott/Getty ImagesElon Musk
  • Business Insider spoke with 42 current or recent Tesla employees about what it’s really like to work for one of the world’s most ambitious and controversial companies.
  • Under CEO Elon Musk, Tesla has ditched many conventions that have steered the auto industry and adopted classic Silicon Valley conventions instead.
  • This includes swapping a “chain of command” management style for an open-inbox email policy. Musk invites any employee at any level within Tesla to email him concerns.
  • When Musk gets an email that worries him, he’s been known to forward it to senior managers with a three-letter response: “WTF.”
  • The strategy causes panic, but Musk isn’t the only CEO to do this. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been known to send emails that simply say “?” to his staffers.

Silicon Valley companies have become known for their radical transparency and open-door policies with employees at all levels.

These policies make it so that everyone from interns on up can voice concerns to top managers without consequences. The strategy was first made famous decades ago by the founders of HP, who physically left the doors to their offices open for any employee to come in and talk.

At Tesla, CEO Elon Musk has adopted a modern-day equivalent: an open inbox policy. He invites anyone in the organisation to go around their manager and email other managers directly, even Musk himself, with their thoughts or feedback.

A lot of Tesla employees say they love this.

“Tesla is open to communication lines to all levels of management,” Cheryl Blackwell, a security manager for Tesla’s Buffalo, New York, facility, told Business Insider. “There is no chain of command. I never feel like I can’t go to a person [with ideas].”

While the intentions behind an ever-accessible CEO can be good, it can also lead to panic and other issues.

Read more: 70-hour weeks and ‘WTF’ emails:

42 employees reveal the frenzy of working at Tesla under the ‘cult’ of Elon Musk

Several rank-and-file employees who have tried emailing Musk told Business Insider they never got a reply.

“I have emailed him when certain things started to happen at the company, and I got no response back. Many, many, many other people have tried to email him with no response back,” Branton Phillips, a material handler for Tesla Production Control at the Fremont facility, said.

In fairness, Tesla employs about 40,000 people. But a nonresponse doesn’t necessarily mean Musk hasn’t read the email or taken action.

A former executive told Business Insider that while Musk does see many inbound emails, he is known to forward the most concerning emails to the VP in charge.

Musk’s feedback to the manager is often just three powerful letters:

“WTF.”

Panicked recipients of the curt inquiries then stop whatever they are doing to research the issue.

“It would cause huge scrambles, and you would spend days chasing down some issue that wasn’t a real problem,” the former Tesla executive said. “Giving people a licence to email Elon created a bunch of problems with everyday work. There’s a reason why the chain of command exists.”

Musk isn’t the only CEO who causes a frenzy among staffers with his email tactics. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been known to send single-character emails to staffers: “?” when customers email him concerns.

“I see most of those emails. I see them and I forward them to the executives in charge of the area with a question mark,” Bezos explained in a recent interview.

He says the exchange isn’t meant to cause alarm, but to solve problems. “It’s shorthand [for], ‘Can you look into this?’ ‘Why is this happening?'” Bezos said.

Tesla, too, stands by its open-inbox policy.

“Our employees are the reason that Tesla has survived and continues to grow in one of the toughest and most competitive industries on earth, and it is incredibly important that they look forward to coming to work every day,” a spokesperson said.

“That is why we work hard to be a fair, just and fun company – the only kind worth being. We always welcome any suggestions that might help us achieve that goal,” the spokesperson added.

Are you an insider with a story to tell about Tesla? We want to hear it. Contact me at [email protected]

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