Twenty-one current and former employees of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin published a damning essay on Thursday saying the company “turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs.”
Co-authored by Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams, the essay describes multiple accounts of sexist and dismissive behavior from some of the company’s “one-hundred percent” male senior technical and program leaders and says “professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled.”
The employees accuse the company’s CEO, Bob Smith, of brushing off dissent by discouraging staff from raising questions during internal town halls, asking a colleague to track “troublemakers or agitators,” and forcing out employees for speaking out about safety issues related to Blue Origin’s New Shepard tourism rocket. “Smith’s inner circle of loyalists makes unilateral decisions, often without the buy-in of engineers, other experts, or senior leaders across various departments,” the employees say.
In an interview with CBS this morning, Abrams, speaking out for the first time, said she was fired by Blue Origin in 2019, quoting her manager as saying, “Bob and I can’t trust you anymore,” referring to the CEO. “You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time,” Abrams said in the interview. “I’ve gotten far enough away from it that I’m not afraid enough to let them silence me anymore.”
Alexandra Abrams, a former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, is speaking out against the company to @LaurieSegall.— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) September 30, 2021
“You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible.” pic.twitter.com/JHuFY3cjcs
In a statement to The Verge, a Blue Origin spokesperson said, “Blue Origin 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 spokesperson also said Abrams was fired “after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” a claim Abrams denied to CBS News.
The essay, published on Lioness, a platform for whistleblowers, indicated Blue Origin sometimes overlooked safety issues to favor speed amid heated competition with other billionaire-backed companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. “Competing with other billionaires — and ‘making progress for Jeff’ — seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule,” the employees said.
A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages launch safety and oversees flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, said, “the FAA takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”
In the essay, the employees also recounted sexism from colleagues, including a former, unnamed executive who would call female employees “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and ask about their dating lives. “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,” they said. Another passage included:
Additionally, a former NASA astronaut and Blue Origin senior leader once instructed a group of women with whom he was collaborating: “You should ask my opinion because I am a man.” We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. Concerns related to flying New Shepard were consistently shut down, and women were demeaned for raising them. When one man was let go for poor performance, he was allowed to leave with dignity, even a going-away party. Yet when a woman leader who had significantly improved her department’s performance was let go, she was ordered to leave immediately, with security hovering until she exited the building five minutes later.
On top of the safety and sexism claims, the letter attacks Bezos and Blue Origin’s record on environmental issues. The employees say while Bezos touts his climate initiatives, Blue Origin has no plans to be carbon neutral or reduce its environmental footprint and that some machinery ordered by the company was done so without considering its waste levels or whether it’d need permits to manage the waste.
The employees also described harsh and demanding conditions that have “taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin’s operations possible.” The essay cites internal memos, including one that cast SpaceX as a model, “in that ‘burnout was part of their labor strategy.’”
On Friday, CNBC obtained a letter from Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith to his employees addressing the allegations. Smith said in the letter that the company would “reflect on what we can learn and improve” and that it has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind.”
He also said, “the New Shepard team went through a methodical and pain-staking process to certify our vehicle for First Human Flight. Anyone that claims otherwise is uninformed and simply incorrect.”
Blue Origin has struggled with internal strife in the past.
In 2020, The Verge reported that Blue Origin employees were outraged by the pressure they faced from senior leadership to continue in-person work and travel for a New Shepard test launch during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the country was locking down to curb the virus’s spread. Responding to employee concerns in one meeting, Jeff Ashby, the company’s senior mission assurance director and a former NASA astronaut, said: “I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?”
Update September 30th, 2:35PM ET: Added additional information from the essay and a statement from the FAA.
Update October 1st, 11:27AM ET: Updated with information from Smith’s letter to Blue Origin employees.