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Blue Origin’s ideas to mimic SpaceX sound pretty brutal for employees

Say goodbye to weekends

Image: Blue Origin

In an attempt to recreate SpaceX’s success, executives at spaceflight venture Blue Origin once praised the rival company’s “burnout” culture as a working labor strategy, with some managers arguing that Blue Origin needs to “get more” out of employees and encourage them to come in on the weekends. The grueling working strategies were summed up in a 2018 memo compiled by Blue Origin executives, a copy of which was viewed by The Verge.

Parts of the memo were quoted in an alarming Lioness essay published on Thursday, which alleged a sexist and unsafe work culture at Blue Origin, founded by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The essay was written by Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, along with 20 present and past employees at the company. She detailed former executives who spoke in demeaning ways to women, as well as one who got fired after groping a female employee. The essay also described a retaliatory culture, one in which people are too scared to speak up about safety issues for fear of losing their jobs.

“In our experience, Blue Origin’s culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs,” Abrams wrote.

Abrams also described company executives as being impatient with slipping schedules, which resulted in them trying to find ways squeeze more productivity out of their employees. She cited the 2018 memo as an example of how Blue Origin hoped to be more aggressive like its competitor SpaceX. Executives created the memo after attending a briefing with Avascent, a strategy and management consultant. In the document, they summarized some of their biggest takeaways from the meeting, while highlighting some of the labor concepts that SpaceX employs.

“Very long hours are expected,” the memo says of SpaceX’s culture. “People are expected to work on vacations or not take them. Burnout is part of their labor strategy. It’s one reason they [sic] workforce tends to be on the younger side. They hired new grads eager to learn and performance [sic] and purposely burn them out.”

A Blue Origin executive later gives his advice on how Blue Origin should change, based on how SpaceX runs its business. “We need to get more out of our employees,” Gregory “Ray J” Johnson, a former astronaut and former Blue Origin manager, wrote. “The lack of effort over weekends to meet deadlines is not culture I am accustomed to in an operations outfit. I realize that development is somewhat different but regardless SpaceX expects and gets more out of their employees. It is a privilege to be a part of history. We are not necessarily slacking by any means but we may be less focused.” Elsewhere in the memo, it states that “Blue is a ghost town on weekends.”

Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge. However, the company did release a statement when the essay was first published. “Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the company said. “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.”

The Blue Origin memo seems to claim that SpaceX succeeds by “selling inspiration and guiding vision to employees,” thanks to strong branding and an active social media presence. And since these workers are hired at the beginning of their careers, they are “driven to work long hours,” with peer pressure a driving factor behind their schedules. As a result, SpaceX achieves “low cost relative to work output” and “high attrition with early burnout.”

“They have a workforce aligned to accomplish the work for the least cost: utilization of early career engineers, who work 80 hours for below market compensation means they can produce drawings at a fast and cost effective pace,” Erik Sallee, a former corporate comptroller at Blue Origin, wrote.

Another strategy the memo cites is that SpaceX actively maintains a “bottom 10 percent” of its workforce, all of whom are automatically put on performance improvement plans or PIP. Other companies have also employed similar tactics, including Amazon, another company founded by Jeff Bezos. But the memo claims that SpaceX automatically lets go of the bottom 10 percent of its workforce each year “ensuring they have a clear path to a continually improving workforce,” Sallee wrote. The idea that companies should fire the 10 percent lowest performing employees was famously championed by Jack Welch, the former CEO and chairman of General Electric. In January 2019, SpaceX did announce that it was laying off 10 percent of its employees that year. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to this tactic, Jason Davis, a vice president of enterprise technology at Blue Origin, wrote that he didn’t necessarily want to put the bottom 10 percent of employees on automatic PIPs, but that “as an organization we need to be more forward/direct about our employee performance overall.” He also argued that he thinks “Blue is kind of lazy compared to SpaceX.” Another executive agreed that Blue needs to better communicate an expectation that employees work more than 40 hours a week. “I’m not advocating 80 hours a week, but we won’t get [New] Shepard to [first human flight] [New] Glenn to orbit or Engines delivered to ULA on 40 per week.”

Elsewhere, the memo cites other examples for SpaceX’s success, such as the fact that the company is mostly vertically integrated, practices iterative design, and designs its vehicles with lowering cost as a significant motivator. The executives seemed to agree that trending in these directions could make Blue Origin more successful.

Abrams claims the primary motivation for writing the essay was concerns over Blue Origin’s vehicles being safe, given the structural problems within the company and how overworked the employees are. “Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle,” she wrote. “And no wonder—we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits.”