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Tina Casey headshot

Employee Activists Hit Brick Wall at SpaceX

SpaceX has recently driven itself into risk territory, and is now facing the prospect of losing out in the race to attract — and retain — top talent.
By Tina Casey

Leading tech companies have been fending off the reputational damage that can occur when their own employees point out contradictions between their mission statement and their actual track record on climate action, sexual harassment, human rights and other concerns. Now SpaceX is taking a turn on the hot seat. However, instead of taking steps to put out the fire, as some have done, SpaceX has driven itself into risk territory, facing the prospect of losing out in the race to attract — and retain — top talent.

Employees warn SpaceX on behavior

The dustup began last Wednesday, when The Verge published the contents of an open letter to SpaceX management, posted on an internal Microsoft Teams channel. According to The Verge’s reporter, Loren Grush, more than 2,600 SpaceX employees are on the channel. In a follow-up story, Grush reported that more than 400 employees signed the letter before it was taken offline, less than two days after it was posted. The Verge also cited a source who claimed that many employees used other means to voice support for the letter without facing the risk of being fired.

The letter was composed by a group of employees concerned about SpaceX CEO and Chief Engineer Elon Musk’s habit of hurling insults and other embarrassing comments on Twitter, and the impact of his behavior on their company’s reputation. They were especially concerned over his dismissive response to sexual harassment allegations that recently surfaced against him.

“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,” the authors warned.

The authors of the letter also raised substantial concerns over the company’s mishandling of harassment reports.

“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,” they wrote.

Taking a detour in the race for top talent

The authors of the letter emphasized that the behavior of SpaceX management, up to and including its CEO, was putting the company at risk by undercutting its ability to attract and retain top talent.

“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,” they advised, later adding that “The collaboration we need to make life multiplanetary is incompatible with a culture that treats employees as consumable resources.”

Naming a key DEI policy with an expletive is both insulting and dismissive, and the letter notes that the terms of the policy were never outlined in detail.

“Is the culture we are fostering now the one which we aim to bring to Mars and beyond?” the authors conclude.

A giant step backwards for free speech and employee activism at SpaceX

Considering that Musk’s interest in free speech has ramped up during his negotiations to purchase Twitter, the response of SpaceX to the letter was either extremely ironic, extremely hypocritical, extremely dangerous or all three.

As reported by Reuters and other media, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell summarily fired at least five employees, who were presumably responsible for composing or circulating the letter.

The threat of being fired without warning is certainly one effective way to curtail employee speech, but Shotwell went far beyond that. 

In a classic case of victim-blaming, Shotwell wrote: “The letter, solicitations and general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views.”

“We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism,” she added.

Those few, simple lines reflect an entire opus of Orwellian, white supremacist thinking, in which intolerable behavior is used as a weapon against those who fight intolerance. The theme of hurt feelings is the common thread running through a series of phony controversies bouncing around the white supremacist echo chamber, raising a cacophony of lies over voter fraud, critical race theory, diversity training, trans rights and other matters that have an impact on corporate diversity, equality and inclusion programs.

Intolerance, entitlement, violence

If the language deployed by Shotwell sounds familiar, that is no accident.

It is the same, disingenuous “diversity” argument weaponized by Mark Zuckerberg in his public defense of Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who played an instrumental role in the 2016 campaign of former president Donald J. Trump.

“We care deeply about diversity. That's easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It's a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That's even more important,” Zuckerberg wrote on an employee message board in October 2016 (emphasis added).

Whether intentionally or not, in that brief note Zuckerberg raises feelings – “what they care about” — to the level of a sacrosanct, inarguable truth that is more important than any moral, ethical, legal or constitutional judgement over what is actually being said, or done.

From there, it is a straight line to the eruption of post-election emotion, entitlement and physical violence that culminated in the almost-successful insurrection of January 6, 2021, and which continues to this day in the attacks on Pride Month events across the nation by organized groups of white supremacists.

The previous insurrection failed, but the Pride Month attacks have become a proving ground and recruiting tool for those bent on succeeding the next time.

Companies that ignore the warning signs – or which, like SpaceX, argue for the entitlement of personal feelings – need to stop suppressing employee activists and start paying attention.

Image credit: Bill Jelen via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey