An open letter to SpaceX decrying CEO Elon Musk’s recent behavior has sparked open discussion among the company’s employees in an internal chat system. Employees are being encouraged to sign onto the letter’s suggestions, either 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 Verge, describes how Musk’s actions and the recent allegations of sexual harassment against him are negatively affecting SpaceX’s reputation. The document claims that employees “across the spectra of gender, ethnicity, seniority, and technical roles have collaborated on” writing the letter. It’s not known which SpaceX employees wrote the letter; the employees who posted the letter in the internal chat system have not responded to requests for comment.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter states. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.”
Musk has been doing a lot recently, and his presence on Twitter can be particularly crass. In April, he shared an image of Bill Gates and an emoji of a pregnant man, captioned with “in case u need to lose a boner fast.” Last year, he also responded to a tweet about Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin, saying “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.” Musk is also currently attempting to buy Twitter.
Shared on Wednesday in an internal SpaceX Microsoft Teams channel with more than 2,600 employees, the letter argues that the company is not living up to its oft-stated “No Asshole” policy and its zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. The document goes on to suggest three different “action items” to address the situation: SpaceX should “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior”; the company should “hold all leadership equally accountable” for bad behavior; and SpaceX needs to “clearly define what exactly is intended by SpaceX’s ‘no-asshole’ and ‘zero tolerance’ policies and enforce them consistently.”
The number of signatures was not immediately available, but employees were asked to sign onto the letter by filling out a survey or scanning a QR code. The letter generated more than a hundred comments in the Teams channel, with many employees agreeing to the spirit of the missive, according to screenshots of the chat shared by two sources who spoke with The Verge and asked to remain anonymous. Some commenters also claimed to be embarrassed by Musk’s behavior. Others expressed a desire for the company to better address executive leadership behavior as well as sexual harassment complaints.
The letter comes nearly a month after a report from Insider alleged that SpaceX paid a former company flight attendant a $250,000 settlement after she accused Musk of exposing himself to her and propositioning her during a massage, an allegation that involved Musk offering to buy her a horse. Musk denied the allegations, telling Insider there is “a lot more to this story.”
“If I were inclined to engage in sexual harassment, this is unlikely to be the first time in my entire 30-year career that it comes to light,” he told the outlet. On Twitter, Musk joked about the story in a tweet reply: “Hi Chad, long time no see! Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”
After the story came out, Shotwell sent a company-wide email to SpaceX employees defending Musk. “Personally, I believe the allegations to be false; not because I work for Elon, but because I have worked closely with him for 20 years and never seen nor heard anything resembling these allegations,” Shotwell wrote. “Anyone who knows Elon like I do, knows he would never conduct or condone this alleged inappropriate behavior.”
This isn’t the first time that the topic of sexual harassment at SpaceX has surfaced. In December, a former SpaceX employee wrote an essay on the platform Lioness detailing her experience with what she described as pervasive sexual harassment at the company. She also criticized SpaceX’s HR response to her complaints. The Verge spoke with four additional former SpaceX employees at the time, all of whom argued that the company’s HR department improperly handled harassment complaints. Before the story came out, Shotwell emailed the company reiterating the “No Asshole” policy.
“We also know we can always do better,” Shotwell wrote in December. “That is why HR has been soliciting 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 the Executives of SpaceX,
In light of recent allegations against our CEO and his public disparagement of the situation, we would like to deliver feedback on how these events affect our company’s reputation, and through it, our mission. Employees across the spectra of gender, ethnicity, seniority, and technical roles have collaborated on this letter. We feel it is imperative to maintain honest and open dialogue with each other to effectively reach our company’s primary goals together: making SpaceX a great place to work for all, and making humans a multiplanetary species.
As SpaceX employees we are expected to challenge established processes, rapidly innovate to solve complex problems as a team, and use failures as learning opportunities. Commitment to these ideals is fundamental to our identity and is core to how we have redefined our industry. But for all our technical achievements, SpaceX fails to apply these principles to the promotion of diversity, equity, 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 spent significant effort beyond their technical scope to make the company a more inclusive space via conference recruiting, open forums, feedback to leadership, outreach, and more. However, we feel an unequal burden to carry this effort as the company has not applied appropriate urgency and resources to the problem in a manner consistent with our approach to critical path technical projects. To be clear: recent events are not isolated incidents; they are emblematic of a wider culture that underserves many of the people who enable SpaceX’s extraordinary accomplishments. As industry leaders, we bear unique responsibility to address this.
Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks. As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX—every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.
SpaceX’s current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values, as many employees continue to experience unequal enforcement of our oft-repeated “No Asshole” and “Zero Tolerance” policies. This must change. As a starting point, we are putting forth the following categories of action items, the specifics of which we would like to discuss in person with the executive team within a month:
Publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior. SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.
Hold all leadership equally accountable to making SpaceX a great place to work for everyone. Apply a critical eye to issues that prevent employees from fully performing their jobs and meeting their potential, pursuing specific and enduring actions that are well resourced, transparent, and treated with the same rigor and urgency as establishing flight rationale after a hardware anomaly.
Define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behavior. Clearly define what exactly is intended by SpaceX’s “no-asshole” and “zero tolerance” policies and enforce them consistently. SpaceX must establish safe avenues for reporting and uphold clear repercussions for all unacceptable behavior, whether from 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 that treats employees as consumable resources. Our unique position requires us to consider how our actions today will shape the experiences of individuals beyond our planet. Is the culture we are fostering now the one which we aim to bring to Mars and beyond?
We have made strides in that direction, but there is so much more to accomplish.