A group of 21 current and former employees of Blue Origin, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’s rocketry side hobby, have penned an open letter that describes the company as fostering a sexist culture, intolerant of internal dissent, and sanguine about safety.
Blue Origin has said the lead author was fired, and that the letter’s claims are false.
The letter, revealed today and titled “Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past” is attributed to “Alexandra Abrams, Former Head of Blue Origin Employee Communications, and 20 other Blue Origin employees and former employees on the New Shepard, New Glenn, Blue Engines, Advanced Development Programs, Test & Flight Operations, and Human Resources teams.”
The letter opens with allegations that Blue Origin’s workforce is “mostly male and overwhelmingly white,” and that “One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.”
That situation has created “a particular brand of sexism” in which “Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women.”
A common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?'
“One senior executive in CEO Bob Smith’s loyal inner circle was reported multiple times to Human Resources for sexual harassment.” The letter alleges Smith “personally made him a member of the hiring committee for filling a senior HR role in 2019.
“It appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos — it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go,” the letter states.
Other male execs used demeaning terms like “‘baby girl,’ ‘baby doll,’ or ‘sweetheart’” when speaking to women and asked about their dating lives. Some women at Blue Origin warned female colleagues to avoid the former exec.
Safety issues could be shunted aside for considerations of billionaire egos, the letter alleges.
“At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?’ Competing with other billionaires — and ‘making progress for Jeff’ — seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule,” the letter states.
Dissent was therefore not tolerated. The letter details occasions on which senior execs shut down discussions about the safety of the New Shepherd rocket and discouraged using company town hall meetings to raise such concerns.
CEO Bob Smith, the letter alleges, once asked for lists of staff who expressed dissent so they could be counseled by managers. Smith also ignored senior technical staff and made decisions in a small group of staff who did not challenge his views.
Sexism pervaded such deliberations. “Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them,” the letter reads.
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One engineer, an un-named signatory to the letter, is quoted as saying “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” Others say they wouldn’t fly on the rocket due to safety concerns.
The rocket biz also worked to silence internal critics. “Critics inside the company have been forced out for speaking up and offered payment in exchange for signing even more restrictive nondisclosure agreements,” the letter states, adding that some who were asked to leave included “engineers who ensure the very safety of the rockets.”
In 2019, the letter adds, all staff were asked to sign new contracts that included a non-disparagement clause that bound them and their heirs. Some staff contracts “mandated they pay the corporation’s legal fees if the corporation chose to sue them for breach of contract.”
The document also outlines how staff were overworked, sometimes on the premise that they should be grateful for the historic opportunity a Blue Origin gig represents. An unhelpful tension between the desire to meet program goals, while also not burning too much money, was another workplace feature.
The letter has been updated with a statement from Blue Origin, pointing out that Abrams “was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations”. Blue Origin’s riposte also states the rocket biz “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. We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”
Blue Origin plans the second crewed launch of New Shepherd on October 12th. Two crew members – former NASA engineer and Planet Labs co-founder Chris Boshuizen, and Mediata cofounder Glen de Vries – have been revealed as crew. Blue Origin has promised to reveal the other two crew in coming days. The rumour mill suggests actor William Shatner – Star Trek's Captain Kirk – could occupy one seat. ®