NEW YORK (AP) — 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 what allegedly happened inside SpaceX after employees circulated the letter in June, which requested, among other things , executives criticized Musk’s public behavior on Twitter — including making light. 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 the flight attendant $250,000 to drop a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire has denied the allegations.
In their letter, employees urged SpaceX to uniformly enforce its policy against unacceptable behavior and commit to a transparent process for responding to claims of misconduct. A day later, Paige Holland-Thielen and four other employees who participated in organizing the letter were fired, according to the filing, which Holland-Thielen made to 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 playing against rules and regulations. He is currently in a challenging battle with the Department of Civil Rights, the California regulator who is suing Tesla for racial discrimination.
Some consider Musk’s management style to be autocratic and challenging, as evidenced by his recent email to Twitter staff giving them until Thursday evening to decide if they want to stay a part of the business. Musk wrote that building a cutting-edge “Twitter 2.0” will require employees to work “very hard” and that success will require long, high-intensity hours.
Several 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 message board for Twitter employees.
In a statement, Holland-Thielen said that as a female engineer with SpaceX, she had “deep cultural problems” and offered comfort to her colleagues who had similar problems.
“It was clear that this culture was created from the highest level,” she said.
However, she said part of what she liked about the company was that anyone could raise issues with leadership and they would be taken seriously.
“We drafted the letter to communicate with the executive team on their terms and to show how their 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 for trying to help the company succeed.”
The firings coincided with Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sexist term to mock Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ stomach and posted a poop emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
After terminating the first set of employees, SpaceX allegedly questioned dozens more in private meetings over the next two months, 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 distribute the letter were fired in July and August, the filing said, bringing the total to nine terminations.
“This used management justifies the philosophy of turning a blind eye to the ongoing abuse, harassment and abuse reported by my colleagues, much of which was directly fueled by the CEO’s words and actions,” 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 were hardly surprising given Musk’s leadership style on Twitter. Musk’s success in companies like Tesla and SpaceX created what he labeled as rubbish under the false notion that it was “all about individual genius.”
“Powerful people get to 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 you think that he is just a killer?”
Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.