An open letter to SpaceX denouncing CEO Elon Musk’s recent behavior has sparked an open discussion among the company’s employees in an internal chat system. Employees are encouraged to sign the letter’s suggestions, publicly or anonymously, with a signed version of the letter to be delivered to the desk of SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
The letter, reviewed by The edge, describes how Musk’s actions and recent sexual harassment allegations against him are negatively affecting SpaceX’s reputation. The document claims that employees “across the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, seniority and technical roles contributed to” the writing of the letter. It is unknown which SpaceX employees wrote the letter; the staff who posted the letter to the internal chat system did not respond to requests for comment.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere has been a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment to us, especially in recent weeks,” the letter said. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every tweet Elon sends is a de facto public statement from the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that his message does not reflect our work, our mission or our values.”
Musk has been doing a lot lately and his Twitter presence can be particularly rude. In April, he shared an image of Bill Gates and an emoji of a pregnant man, captioned “Just in case you need to lose a boner fast.” Last year he also responded to a tweet about Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, saying, “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.” Musk is also currently trying to buy Twitter.
Shared Wednesday in an internal SpaceX Microsoft Teams channel with more than 2,600 employees, the letter states that the company is violating its oft-cited “No Asshole” policy and its zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. The document further proposes three distinct “actions” to address the situation: SpaceX must “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior”; the company must “hold all leaders equally accountable” for bad behavior; and SpaceX must “clearly define what exactly is meant by SpaceX’s ‘no-asshole’ and ‘zero tolerance’ policies and enforce them consistently.”
The signature count was not immediately available, but employees were asked to sign on the letter by completing a survey or scanning a QR code. The letter generated more than a hundred comments in the Teams channel, with many employees agreeing with the spirit of the letter, according to screenshots of the chat shared by two sources who spoke to The edge and requested to remain anonymous. Some commentators also claimed to be ashamed of Musk’s behavior. Others made a wish for the company to better address executive behavior and sexual harassment complaints.
The letter comes almost a month after a report from Insider alleged that SpaceX paid a former flight attendant of the company a $250,000 settlement after accusing Musk of exposing himself to her and making her a offer during a massage, an allegation where Musk offered to buy her a horse. Musk denied the allegations, telling: Insider there is “much more to this story.”
“If I was prone to sexual harassment, it’s unlikely this will be the first time in my entire 30-year career that it’s come to light,” he told the outlet. On Twitter, Musk joked about the story in a tweet response: “Hello Chad, long time no see! Fine, if you touch my sausage, you can have a horse.’
After the story got out, Shotwell sent a company-wide email to SpaceX employees defending Musk. “Personally, I believe the allegations are false; not because I work for Elon, but because I’ve worked closely with him for 20 years and never saw or heard anything similar to these allegations,” Shotwell wrote. “Anyone who knows Elon like me knows that he would never carry out or condone this alleged inappropriate behavior.”
This isn’t the first time the topic of sexual harassment has surfaced at SpaceX. In December, a former SpaceX employee wrote an essay on the platform Lioness detailing her experience of what she described as pervasive sexual harassment at the company. She also criticized SpaceX’s HR response to her complaints. The edge spoke to four additional former SpaceX employees at the time, all of whom claimed the company’s HR department was handling harassment complaints inappropriately. Before the story came out, Shotwell emailed the company reiterating its “No Asshole” policy.
“We also know that we can always do better,” Shotwell wrote in December. “That’s why HR has been asking for feedback from groups across the company to ensure the process is effective. HR will also conduct an internal audit followed by a third party audit.”
A copy of the letter can be read below:
An open letter to SpaceX executives,
In light of recent allegations against our CEO and his public disregard for the situation, we’d like to provide feedback on how these events impact our company’s reputation and thereby our mission. Employees from all corners of the spectrum of gender, ethnicity, seniority and technical roles contributed to this letter. We believe it is necessary to maintain an honest and open dialogue with each other in order to effectively achieve our company’s key goals together: to make SpaceX a great workplace for everyone and to make humans a multiplanetary species.
As SpaceX employees, we are expected to challenge established processes, innovate quickly to solve complex problems as a team, and use failures as learning opportunities. Commitment to these ideals is fundamental to our identity and is at the heart of how we have redefined our industry. But for all our engineering achievements, SpaceX fails to apply these principles to advancing diversity, equality and inclusion with equal priority across the company, resulting in a workplace culture that remains firmly rooted in the status quo.
Individuals and groups of employees at SpaceX have made significant efforts beyond their technical scope to make the company a more inclusive space through conference recruiting, open forums, leadership feedback, outreach, and more. However, we feel an unequal burden to carry this effort as the company has not applied the appropriate urgency and resources to the issue in a manner consistent with our approach to engineering projects on the critical path. To be clear, recent events are not isolated incidents; they are emblematic of a broader culture that falls short of many of the people who make SpaceX’s extraordinary achievements possible. As industry leaders, we have a unique responsibility to address this.
Elon’s behavior in the public sphere has been a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, especially in recent weeks. As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every Tweet Elon sends is a de facto public statement from the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that his messages do not reflect our work, our mission or our values.
SpaceX’s current systems and culture fall short as many employees still face unequal enforcement of our oft-repeated “No Asshole” and “Zero Tolerance” policies. This must change. As a starting point, we propose the following categories of action points, the details of which we would like to discuss personally with the management team within a month:
Openly raising and condemning Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior. SpaceX must quickly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.
Hold all leaders equally accountable to make SpaceX a great workplace for everyone. Look critically at issues that prevent employees from fully performing their jobs and fulfilling their potential by pursuing specific and sustainable actions that are well-equipped, transparent, and treated with the same rigor and urgency as determining reasons to flee after a hardware deviation.
Define and respond uniformly to all forms of unacceptable behavior. Clearly define what exactly is meant by SpaceX’s “no-asshole” and “zero tolerance” policies and enforce them consistently. SpaceX must find safe ways of reporting and maintain clear repercussions for all unacceptable behavior, whether it be the CEO or an employee starting their first day.
We care deeply about SpaceX’s mission to make humanity multiplanetary. But more importantly, we care about each other. The collaboration we need to make life multiplanetary is incompatible with a culture where workers are treated like consumables. Our unique position requires us to think about how our actions today will shape the experiences of individuals beyond our planet. Is the culture we cherish now the one we want to bring to Mars and beyond?
We have made steps in that direction, but there is still so much more to be achieved.