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Former Employees Accuse Bezos, Blue Origin of Creating Toxic and Sexist Workplace, Cutting Corners on Safety

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 30, 2021
Filed under , , , ,
Jeff Bezos

Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams and 20 former and present Blue Origin employees have published a stinging essay accusing Jeff Bezos and his space company, Blue Origin, of creating a sexist working environment where employees are overworked and corners are cut on safety.

The essay, “Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past,” was published on A key theme is that Bezos’ vision of billions living in space colonies is seriously at odds with the environment within Blue Origin.

The authors wrote of a sexist and discriminatory atmosphere within a company that is predominantly male.

Another former executive frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them “baby girl,” “baby doll,” or “sweetheart” and inquiring about their dating lives. His inappropriate behavior was so well known that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him, all while he was in charge of recruiting employees. 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.

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.” 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.

The author said safety concerns about Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital flight were dismissed in an atmosphere that discourages dissent and free discussion.

This suppression of dissent brings us to the matter of safety, which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. 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.

In 2020, company leaders demonstrated increasing impatience with New Shepard’s schedule of a few flights per year; their goal, routinely communicated to operations and maintenance staff, was to scale to more than 40. Some of us felt that with the resources and staff available, leadership’s race to launch at such a breakneck speed was seriously compromising flight safety. When Challenger exploded, the government’s investigation determined that the push to keep to a schedule of 24 flights per year “directly contributed to unsafe launch operations.” Of note: the Challenger report also cited internal stifling of differences of opinion as one of the organizational issues that led to the disaster and loss of life.

In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle. And no wonder—we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits. In 2019, the team assigned to operate and maintain one of New Shepard’s subsystems included only a few engineers working long hours. Their responsibilities, in some of our opinions, went far beyond what would be manageable for a team double the size, ranging from investigating the root cause of failures to conducting regular preventative maintenance on the rocket’s systems.

Meanwhile, the company has ignored environmental and safety concerns.

Jeff Bezos has made splashy announcements and donations to climate justice groups, but “benefiting Earth” starts in one’s own backyard. In our experience, environmental concerns have never been a priority at Blue Origin. Time and again we saw new capabilities added to the Kent factory, but not until the machinery showed up did the company begin to consider the environmental impact, including whether a permit was needed to manage the waste products.

For years employees have raised environmental concerns at company town halls, but these have been largely left unaddressed. The company headquarters that opened in 2020 is not a LEED-certified building and was built on wetlands that were drained for construction. Eventually the surrounding roads had to be elevated to mitigate the severe flooding that ensued. We did not see sustainability, climate change, or climate justice influencing Blue Origin’s decision-making process or company culture.

In the end, Bezos’ vision for the future clashes with the reality of how his space company operates.

The artistic renderings of Bezos’s orbiting colonies have a utopian flair. But what will these colonies actually be like, given the disturbing systemic problems within his own company here on Earth? 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. That’s not the world we should be creating here on Earth, and certainly not as our springboard to a better one.

Read the full essay.

12 responses to “Former Employees Accuse Bezos, Blue Origin of Creating Toxic and Sexist Workplace, Cutting Corners on Safety”

  1. Bryant Smith says:

    ‘Of course, no company is perfect. But what matters in a company as much as in a society is that when wrongs are exposed, leadership makes efforts to right them and learn from them.’

    Sounds like the issue is not a technological one, but a cultural one. Cultures are not necessarily created intentionally, but certainly created from the top. A cultural change needs to be effected from the top.

    One thing I find interesting is the essay’s comparison with SpaceX.

    ‘That culture has also taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin’s operations possible. Memos from senior leadership reveal a desire to push employees to their limits, stating that the company needs to “get more out of our employees” and that the employees should consider it a “privilege to be a part of history.” One directive held out SpaceX as a model, in that “burnout was part of their labor strategy.”’

    Seems like a terrible model to want to emulate, but what I find most strange is that Blue Origin doesn’t seem to be reaping the “move fast” benefits of the model, just the burnout.

  2. Dave Salt says:

    I don’t see the list of names for those 20 other employees. Anyone know who they are or has a link that lists them?

    EDIT: Okay, the ArsTechnica article…
    …says the following:
    ‘The other signatories, a majority of whom were engineers, declined to publicly
    disclose their names because they did not want to jeopardize employment at
    Blue Origin or harm their prospects in the aerospace industry for other jobs.’
    …which somewhat reduces the weight of this essay as there’s no way to judge the credibility of the other 20 contributors. I can certainly sympathize with them, especially if they have families to support, but do wonder how long they can maintain their anonymity, given the alleged ruthlessness of the BO management team.

  3. Stanistani says:

    Even without the letter, just looking at Amazon’s corporate culture, and the known ego problems manifested in Bezos’s recent actions for Blue origin, there are really only two possibilities: ‘Feet of clay’ or ‘Ozymandias.’

  4. Thomas_Ackerman says:

    In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, “Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far.” Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.

    Oh really now? New Shepard has been flight-proven as a system time and time again, tested very methodically, and even taken long stretches between flights to improve the system to make it more safe and reliable.

    Seventeen flights with no launch failures and a single landing attempt failure is pretty damn good. As I pointed out in another discussion this was brought up in, this stinks of an attempt to poison the well against New Shepard at a time when SpaceShipTwo is grounded and Blue is flying passengers as well as cargo.

    • Dave Salt says:

      You say “Seventeen flights with no launch failures and a single landing attempt failure is pretty damn good” but I say compared to what?

      New Shepard is certainly far safe than SS2, but that’s a pretty low bar for comparison – remember, Shuttle flew successfully 24 times before Challenger!

      • Thomas_Ackerman says:

        However, there were very serious issues that became evident before Challenger with the Shuttle program as a whole and the system was declared operational after just four flights using a bleeding edge of performance architecture. Oh, and no launch escape system for crew and big SRBs while Shuttle was flown with a crew always aboard requirement for every mission. Shuttle was also was pressured to fly 24 times a year and in as little as 4 years to 15.

        By contrast, as I noted New Shepard very methodically tested and no one was flown on it until NS-16 and it has a flight-proven LES. So in that way, Blue Origin is being very open about the odds that something bad can happen and the BE-3s are very good performance engines, but not bleeding edge performance. A big deal is being made over flying 5 or 6 times. Finally, there is no need to have anyone aboard either New Shepard for launch or landing, which is why the 3rd NS flies with cargo only.

        A whole different mindset.

        • Dave Salt says:

          I’d like to believe you but, unless you’re someone working deep within the BO engineering team, others have every right to think you’re just repeating Bezos’ PR and have no way of knowing what really is going on ‘behind the curtain’.

          • ThomasLMatula says:

            Yes, and we also do not know the motives of the “whistle blowers”. I am especially wondering why they aren’t filing lawsuits as these are the type of cases lawyers love to take on with the potential for multi-million dollar judgements if they win or settle.

          • Thomas_Ackerman says:

            However, he didn’t share the safety concerns expressed in the essay. “It’s not going to be 100% safe, and there is inherent risk, but I truly feel that it is a safe vehicle,” he wrote, noting he worked on its avionics. “I would fly on [New Shepard] today.”

            – Joseph Gruber, former Blue Origin employee as quoted from SpaceNews

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