NEW YORK (AP) — Several SpaceX employees who were fired after circulating an open letter denouncing CEO Elon Musk’s behavior have filed complaints accusing the company of violating employment laws.
The complaint, filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board, details the fallout from what allegedly happened inside SpaceX after employees circulated the letter in June, which, among other things, called on executives to condemn the behavior. Musk’s public on Twitter, including dismissing allegations that he sexually harassed a flight attendant and holding everyone accountable for unacceptable conduct.
The letter was sent weeks after a media report surfaced that Musk paid the flight attendant $250,000 to quash a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire has denied the allegations.
In their letter, the employees 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 who were involved in organizing the letter were fired, according to the document filed by Holland-Thielen with an NLRB regional office in California. Four additional employees were fired weeks later for their involvement in the letter.
A company spokesperson 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 it means breaking rules and regulations. He is currently in a challenging fight with the Department of Civil Rights, a California regulator that is suing tesla by rampant racial discrimination.
Some view Musk’s management style as autocratic and demanding, as evidenced by a recent email he sent to Twitter staff giving them until Thursday night to decide if they want to remain a part of the business. Musk wrote that employees “will have to be extremely tough” to build “a breakthrough in Twitter 2.0” and that it will take long hours at high intensity to succeed.
several engineers also said on Twitter 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 an engineer at SpaceX, she experienced “deep cultural issues” and consoled colleagues who had experienced similar issues.
“It was clear that this culture was created from the highest level,” he said.
Still, he said that part of what he liked about the company was that anyone could elevate problems to leadership and be taken seriously.
“We crafted the letter to communicate to executive staff on their terms and show how their inaction created tangible barriers to the long-term success of the mission,” Holland-Thielen said. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us for trying to help make the company successful.”
The firing coincides with that of Musk $44 billion purchase Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sex term to make fun of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ belly, and also posted a poop emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
After firing the first batch of employees, SpaceX allegedly questioned dozens of others over the next two months in private meetings, telling them they couldn’t disclose those conversations to anyone else due to attorney-client privilege, according to the complaint. Four additional employees who helped draft or shared the letter were fired in July and August, according to the document, bringing the total to nine layoffs.
“Management used this ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment, harassment and abuse reported by my colleagues, many of whom were directly encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of the director executive,” said Tom. Moline, who was also fired from SpaceX after organizing the letter.
Jeffery Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s business school, said the allegations came as no surprise given Musk’s leadership style on Twitter. Musk’s success at companies like Tesla and SpaceX has created what he labeled hubris under the false notion that “it’s all about individual genius.”
“Powerful people can break the rules. They don’t think they are bound by the same conventions as other people,” Pfeffer said, criticizing Musk’s behavior. He said he displayed the arrogance of Musk, one of the world’s richest men: “Why would I think he’s a mere mortal?”
Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
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