New York (CNN Business)A group of 21 current and former employees at Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, co-signed an essay speaking out against what they describe as a toxic workplace where “professional dissent” is “actively stifled,” and certain male leaders routinely engage in sexist behavior.
All but one of the signatories declined to be publicly identified for fear of professional retribution.
Only one — Alexandra Abrams, who was employed with the company for two and a half years during which she had a stint in public relations before establishing the company’s department of employee communications before she was fired in 2019 — agreed to go on-the-record.
In a statement, Blue Origin said it has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.” The company did not respond to requests for comment about specific allegations in the essay.
Blue Origin was founded by Bezos in 2000, and it currently has more than 3,000 employees, working on projects that include a suborbital space tourism rocket, a massive launch vehicle that could be used to haul satellites to space for the US government and other customers, as well as a lunar lander that is currently at the center of a legal standoff with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Blue Origin’s goal is to develop technology that will expand humanity’s presence in outer space under the stated belief that “to preserve Earth, our home, for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy.”
In the 2,200-word essay, which was published by Lioness, which works with whistle blowers and is representing the signatories pro bono, they describe themselves as space enthusiasts who believed in Blue Origin’s mission. They include men and women, most of whom spent at least two years at the company and include senior engineers and managers who have worked across a variety of departments and programs, according to a list of the signatories reviewed by CNN Business.
But their passions dissolved after experiencing what they described as a “dehumanizing” workplace environment.
‘Suppression of dissent’ and sexism
The essay claims that Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, who took over the company in 2017, installed an “inner circle” of trusted top-level executives that make “unilateral decisions, often without the buy-in of engineers, other experts, or senior leaders across various departments.”
Fear and anxiety about stepping out of line with Smith’s inner circle is pervasive, according to the essay. At one point, he also distributed a list of perceived “troublemakers” to senior leaders. The existence of the list was corroborated by CNN Business.
The essay signatories also decry alleged sexist behavior at Blue Origin, describing a workplace in which women’s ideas are routinely dismissed and certain male executives are known to condescend to female employees.
One senior leader — also a member of Smith’s alleged circle — was the subject of “multiple” HR complaints stemming from his “consistently inappropriate [behavior] with women,” the essay claims. CNN Business also corroborated multiple examples of what female employees called sexist behavior, including embracing ideas brought to him by a man that were previously brought up by women and commenting on women’s bodies.
Blue Origin did not respond to an inquiry about the executive.
Blue Origin describes itself as a company content with slow, methodical rocket development that covets safety over all else. The company even adopted the mascot of a tortoise, a reference to the famed fable in which “slow and steady” wins the race.
The company attracted wall-to-wall news coverage this past July when it launched Bezos himself to the edge of space, weeks after announcing the plan. After Bezos made public his own intentions, Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, announced its own plan to put the British billionaire into space, and managed to do so nine days before Bezos could launch.
“At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?'” the essay reads, adding that competition with other billionaires was a large motivating factor. Abrams said she was present for at least one such meeting. One internal memo from 2018, obtained by CNN Business and mentioned in the essay, paints a roadmap for Blue Origin to mimic SpaceX’s culture — in which “burnout is part of their labor strategy” and there’s a willingness to “bend the rules.”
In this environment, safety is not an option, even if we repeatedly state that it is our highest priority
Former Blue Origin senior engineer
Though every rocket launch is inherently risky because of the sheer complexity and power of the vehicles involved, some engineers at the company have also pushed back against what they saw as a desire to put speed over safety, according to the essay and internal documents. One senior engineer, for example, resigned in April 2020 to protest a “‘schedule-biased drive [that] is incapable of producing safe systems engineering.”
“In this environment, safety is not an option, even if we repeatedly state that it is our highest priority,” the resignation letter, obtained by CNN Business, reads.
The essay published Thursday also states that many of its authors “say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial space launches, said in a statement about the essay Thursday that it “takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”
Blue Origin has not publicly identified any technological or mechanical issues with test flights — of which there have been more than a dozen — or the crewed flight of New Shepard in July, which flew Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, an 18-year-old whose father paid for his seat, and 82-year-old Wally Funk, who trained for NASA’s Mercury program but was denied the opportunity to go to space.
During a webcast of Blue Origin’s latest test flight, the company reiterated that safety is the “main priority” on every mission.
Why Abrams came forward
Abrams told CNN Business that she was drawn to a job in the so-called new space industry because she believed in its stated ideology — to push advancements in technology to bring to fruition an exciting new future in which people live and work in space. But she fell out of love with space exploration during her time at Blue Origin.
“It was a death by a thousand cuts,” she told CNN Business.
One turning point for Abrams, she said, was the company’s decision to draft new employment agreements that included forced arbitration clauses — essentially stripping workers of their rights to sue the company in the event of wage and harassment claims — after a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2018. Since the decision, such clauses have grown increasingly common in employee contracts. A non-profit left-leaning think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, along with the Center for Popular Democracy, estimated in one report that more than 80% of private sector non-union workers will be covered by forced arbitration clauses by 2024.
Abrams said she fought back in meetings, arguing that though such agreements were considered enforceable, they were exploitative and unethical. Abrams did manage to get the company to carve out an exception for harassment-related claims, according to Abrams and a copy of a Blue Origin employment agreement obtained by CNN Business.
But having to battle Blue Origin’s decision to include the clause at all disheartened her.
I was like, 'Wow, now I see how the most powerful person in the world uses their power.' They use it to continually shore up their position and disempower people around them.
Alexandra Abrams, former Blue Origin head of employee communciations
“I was like, ‘Wow, now I see how the most powerful person in the world uses their power.’ They use it to continually shore up their position and disempower people around them,” she told CNN Business. “And that kind of broke my mind about all the stuff I’ve been communicating about space and humanity’s better future…That was the last straw.”
Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
The company added the forced arbitration clause to employee contracts in 2019, according to Abrams and a document obtained by CNN Business. Within the same year, Abrams said she was transferred to a new boss, someone in CEO Bob Smith’s inner circle. In November 2019 — after two and a half years with the company — she was fired because her superiors said they “could no longer trust” her, and she was escorted out the door by HR, she said.
(A letter Blue Origin sent to Abrams on Monday states that she was terminated for “poor performance and decision-making by you that resulted in senior leadership losing trust in your judgment and ability to preform your job effectively,” and a Blue Origin statement to reporters says she was let go “after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.” Both claims, Abrams said, are baseless.)
She accepted a severance agreement that also included non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses.
Because of her decision to come forward, Abrams said she is expecting the company to sue her. After Lioness, the PR agency she’s working with, alerted Blue Origin to her plans to come forward, she received a letter from Blue Origin’s legal director of labor and employment on Monday, asserting that the company “reserves its rights” to pursue legal action against her and attempt to recoup her severance pay as well as damages and legal fees.
But Abrams said she decided no amount of money was worth it.
“I don’t necessarily think Blue Origin is the most important thing to be talking about on planet Earth right now,” she said. “However, I think telling these stories is how we create sparks that create a fire, and I’m no longer going to be silenced.”
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