The complaint, filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board, outlines the fallout from what allegedly happened inside SpaceX after employees circulated the letter in June, which, among other things, called on executives to condemn Musk’s public behavior on Twitter — including Making light of allegations that he sexually harassed a flight attendant – and holding everyone accountable for unacceptable behavior.
The letter was sent weeks after a media report emerged that Musk had paid the flight attendant $250,000 to drop a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire denied the allegations.
In their letter, the employees urged SpaceX to uniformly enforce its policy against unacceptable behavior and to adhere 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 filing, which Holland-Thielen provided to the NLRB’s 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.
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Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX who currently runs Twitter, prefers to do things his own way even if it means breaking rules and regulations.
It’s currently in a defiant conflict with the Civil Rights Administration, a California regulator that’s suing Tesla over rampant racial discrimination.
Some see Musk’s management style as authoritarian and demanding, as evidenced by an email he recently sent to Twitter employees giving them until Thursday night to decide if they want to stay a part of the business.
Musk wrote that employees would “need to be very hardcore” to build the “Twitter 2.0 hack” and that long hours at high intensity would be necessary to succeed.
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 message board of Twitter employees.
In a statement, Holland Tellen said that, as a SpaceX engineer, she has experienced “deep cultural problems” and reassured colleagues who have gone through similar problems.
“It was clear that this culture arose from the highest levels,” she said.
However, she said that part of what she liked about the company was that anyone could escalate issues to leadership and be taken seriously.
“We crafted the letter to connect with executives on their terms and show how their inaction created tangible barriers to long-term mission success,” Holland-Thellen said. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us for trying to help the company succeed.”
The layoffs coincide with Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sexual term to poke fun at the belly of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and also posted an emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
After terminating the first set of employees, SpaceX allegedly questioned 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 up to nine terminations in total.
“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 which were directly encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of CEO Tom Mullen, who was also fired from SpaceX after organizing the message.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor specializing in organizational behavior at the Stanford University School of Business, said the allegations were not surprising given Musk’s leadership style at Twitter.
Musk’s success at companies like Tesla and SpaceX has created what he describes as hubris under the misconception that it is about “individual genius.”
Criticizing Musk’s behavior, Pfeffer said, “Powerful people break the rules. They don’t think they’re bound by the same norms as other people.” He said it shows the arrogance of Musk, one of the world’s richest men: “Why does he think he’s just human?”