Elon Musk announced thousands of layoffs at Tesla today via an internal email. 

Let's just say it: Laying people off really sucks, no matter what. It's a hard thing for any CEO to do, at least if he or she is also a legitimate human being.

But there are three key sentences within Musk's 545-word message that truly stand out as the most important:

  • One sentence lays out the prudent but brutal reasoning behind leaving more than 9 percent of loyal Tesla employees suddenly without a job.
  • The other two sentences seem to offer a surprising, unintentional clue into the toll that this big, difficult decision might have taken on Musk. It's even more intriguing because it looks like one of these two sentences might have been included in error.

Below, we'll quickly explore the background, pull out the three key sentences--and then include the full text of the email.

Background: 9 percent of 46,000

Since January, Tesla has added 8,000 jobs, bringing them to about 46,000 total employees. This round of layoffs however, meant dropping 4,100 people--about 9 percent of the total.

As part of the company's effort eventually "to reduce costs and become profitable," as Musk put it in his email, "we have made the difficult decision to let go of approximately 9% of our colleagues across the company."

Are the cuts a surprise? That depends on your point of view.

But the company has missed some of its production targets, and it's facing some of the harshest criticism in its history. Tesla's goal is to roll out 5,000 Model 3 cars per week, and it's not clear whether that's going to happen by its target of the end of June.

Key sentence No. 1: the business justification

It's not quite true that Tesla has never laid off employees before, but this is the biggest number by far. And even though Musk made the case that it was necessary, 9 percent feels like he's possibly cutting pretty close to the bone.

The key justification? It's summarized in this sentence:

"I also want to emphasize that we are making this hard decision now so that we never have to do this again."

I've interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs and CEOs over the years. We've talked about the experience of having to lay people off. It's emotionally fraught for many of them.

The best among them basically had the same advice: If you have to cut staff, do it once, and do it as hard as you think you can stand, so you don't have to do it again. One round of layoffs is very rough; a second round can be truly horrible.

Key sentences Nos. 2 and 3: the error that might reveal everything

But here are the other two sentences, that I think are even more interesting. One of them might well have been included by accident. I think they might unintentionally reveal just how much hard it is for Musk to realize that 4,100 people are losing their jobs, and he's the one who has to deliver the news.

Here are the two sentences:

"I would like to thank everyone who is departing Tesla for their hard work over the years."

--and then, a paragraph and a half later--

"To those who are departing, thank you for everything you've done for Tesla and we wish you well in your future opportunities." 

Do you see what I'm getting at? Maybe it will be even clearer when we reprint the whole email below. This almost looks like an editing error: two sentences saying exactly the same thing, just 93 words apart. He simply can't stop thanking the people he's kicking out for all they've done for the company.

I doubt he meant to say it twice. Maybe he needed a better copyeditor--although, this is one of the most important and soon-to-be-pored-over emails he's sent, and Tesla is one of the 500 biggest companies in America. It's a big deal if their corporate communications team screwed this up.

So, I'm going to go out on a limb, and suggest that maybe it's both: an editing error, sure, but also--possibly--also an unintentional subliminal message, suggesting Musk really, really, really feels both grateful and guilty about having to make this move.

You can say he's an unfeeling Tony Stark; that's your right. I mean, the man is selling quasi-flamethrowers to the greater populace of Los Angeles, which doesn't exactly scream empathy.

But I think it's tearing him up to have to do this, both because of what it means for the soon-to-be-ex-employees--and also what it says about the mistakes Tesla made in getting to this point.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. Meantime, here's Musk's tweet with the entire email included.

Published on: Jun 12, 2018