Several SpaceX employees who were fired after circulating an open letter calling out CEO Elon Musk’s behavior have filed a complaint accusing the company of violating labor laws.
The complaint, filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board, details the fallout from what allegedly happened at SpaceX after employees circulated the letter in June, which, among other things, called on executives to publicly condemn the behavior of Musk on Twitter — including dismissing allegations that he sexually harassed a flight attendant — and holding everyone accountable for unacceptable behavior.
The letter was sent weeks after a media report surfaced that Musk had paid $250,000 (roughly Rs. 2,04,27,920) to the flight attendant to drop a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire has denied the allegations.
The employees, in their letter, urged SpaceX to uniformly enforce its policy against unacceptable behavior and commit to a transparent process for responding to allegations of misconduct. A day later, Paige Holland-Thielen and four other employees involved in organizing the letter were fired, according to a filing Holland-Thielen made with the NLRB’s California regional office. Four additional employees were fired weeks later for their involvement in the letter.
A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Musk, who is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and currently runs Twitter, prefers to do things his own way, even if that means breaking rules and regulations. He is currently in a challenging battle with the Department of Civil Rights, a California regulator that is suing Tesla for rampant racial discrimination.
Some view Musk’s management style as autocratic and demanding, as evidenced by a recent email he sent to Twitter employees, giving them until Thursday night to decide whether they want to remain part of the business. Musk wrote that employees “will have to be extremely tough” to build a “revolutionary Twitter 2.0” and that success will require long, high-intensity hours.
A number of engineers also said on Twitter that they were fired last week after saying something critical of Musk, either publicly on Twitter or on an internal Twitter employee message board.
In a statement, Holland-Thielen said that as a female engineer at SpaceX she experienced “profound cultural issues” and comforted colleagues who had similar issues.
“It was clear that this culture was created from the highest level,” she said.
Still, she said part of what she likes about the company is that anyone can escalate issues to management and be taken seriously.
“We drafted the letter to communicate to executive staff their conditions and show how the lack of action created tangible barriers to the long-term success of the mission,” Holland-Thielen said. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us because we are trying to help the company succeed.”
The layoffs coincide with Musk’s $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3.37,465 crore) buyout of Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sexual term to mock Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ stomach and also posted a poop emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
After firing the first set of employees, SpaceX allegedly interviewed dozens of others over the next two months in private meetings, telling them they could not disclose those conversations to anyone else because of attorney-client privilege, according to the complaint . Four additional employees who helped draft or share the letter were fired in July and August, the filing said, adding to a total of nine terminations.
“Management has used this ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment, harassment and abuse reported by my colleagues, much of whom were directly encouraged and inspired by the CEO’s words and actions,” said Tom Molin, who was also fired from SpaceX after orchestrating the letter.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s business school, said the allegations were hardly a surprise given Musk’s leadership style on Twitter. Musk’s success at companies like Tesla and SpaceX created what he called hubris under the false notion that “it’s all about individual genius.”
“Powerful people break the rules. They don’t think they’re bound by the same conventions as other people,” Pfeffer said, criticizing Musk’s behavior. He said it showed the arrogance of Musk, one of the richest men in the world: “Why would he think he’s a mere mortal?”