SpaceX Employees Say They’re Fed Up with Elon Musk’s Behavior, Call for Company to Equally Enforce “Zero Tolerance” Policy on Sexual Harassment

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Loren Grush at The Verge reports on an open letter being circulated within SpaceX that calls upon the company to “publicly address and condemn” CEO and Founder Elon Musk’s “harmful Twitter behavior. SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.”

“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,” the letter said.

The letter calls for equal enforcement of SpaceX’s “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. The call comes amid claims made by a former employee that sexual harassment is rife within the company, and a published report by Insider that alleged SpaceX paid a $250,000 severance to a company flight attendant after a naked Musk exposed his erect penis to her during a flight on a corporate jet. Musk and SpaceX officials denied the billionaire exposed himself.

The employee letter said:

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.

Musk and SpaceX officials have denied that the billionaire exposed himself to a flight attendant, but not that the severance payment was made. Insider reported:

After Insider contacted Musk for comment, he emailed to ask for more time to respond and said 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 wrote, calling the story a “politically motivated hit piece.”

Insider extended the deadline and reiterated the offer to Musk to comment on the claims. He did not respond.

Reached via cell phone, SpaceX vice president of legal Christopher Cardaci said, “I’m not going to comment on any settlement agreements.” SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment to its general media contact email address.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell later defended Musk against the allegations of sexual harassment.

“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 in a company-wide email.

Shotwell did not comment on the reported severance package provided to the flight attendant.  “For privacy reasons I will never comment on any legal matters involving employment issues,” she wrote.

Shotwell reiterated earlier statements that accusations of sexual harassment are seriously no matter who was accused. The SpaceX president had given the same assurances earlier after former employee Ashley Kosak published an essay on Lioness in December alleging a culture of widespread sexism and cultural harassment. Kosak wrote:

A few weeks after my start date, a fellow intern approached me in our intern housing and grabbed my butt while I was washing my dishes. I reported the incident to a superior and another colleague, but the matter was never brought to HR. I had to continue living in the residence with this man.

Over my next two years as a SpaceX intern, countless men made sexual advances toward me. In 2018, during a team bonding event, a male colleague ran his hand over my shirt, from my lower waist to my chest. I told my supervisors what he had done, then met with HR and reported the inappropriate behavior, but no one followed up. This man remained part of the team I reported to and worked for. Given my tenuous position at the company, I felt powerless.

In the past year alone, I have had to bring multiple different incidents of sexism to HR. Some of the men who work at SpaceX hug women without consent, stare at women while they work, and interpret every company-related social event as an opportunity to date (or hit on) women in the office. I saw one woman pressured into dancing with a male colleague in front of other male employees. When we had to work from home during the pandemic, men from the company found my Instagram account, messaging me to ask me out. One called my phone at 4:00 am. Another coworker came to my house and insisted on touching me even when I repeatedly requested we stay professional.

I reported each incident of sexual harassment I experienced to HR, and nothing was done. I was told that matters of this nature were too private to openly discuss with the perpetrators. Instead, they said mandated company training programs would be held. I presented ideas for a standardized framework for penalizing sexual harassers to HR, as they had not implemented any remedies; those ideas went unresponded to. I recorded a meeting I had with HR, because I found it so unbelievable that there was no system in place to deal with this behavior. In the end, nothing happened—except I was given a warning that recording the meeting was in violation of SpaceX policy and Florida law. Each and every man who harassed me was tolerated despite the company’s so-called no-tolerance and no-asshole policy.

Kosak said that conditions were entirely at odds with Musk’s lofty goal of spreading the light of human consciousness into space by establishing a human colony on Mars.

“These conditions would be disturbing anywhere, but in this particular workplace, we are blazing a trail to settle a new planet. What will life on Elon’s Mars be like? Probably much like life at SpaceX. Elon uses engineers as a resource to be mined rather than a team to be led,” she wrote.

Kosak’s sentiments were echoed on the employee letter being circulated within SpaceX.

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?

The open letter comes as Musk has been particularly active on Twitter over the past couple of months as he has been in the midst of an effort to purchase the micro-blogging platform for $44 billion or $54.20. Although Twitter’s board of directors accepted the deal, Musk subsequently put the deal on hold saying the company had underestimated the number of automated bot accounts that are not representative of individual users. Musk’s move is widely seen as an attempt to negotiate a lower price.

Musk has long used Twitter to make crass and insulting Tweets about others. In 2018, he called a diver who criticized a mini-sub his engineers built to rescue a Thai soccer team stuck in a flooded cave a “pedo[phile] guy” without evidence. More recently he tweeted that rival Jeff Bezos’ “Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol.” Then there was this tweet about Bill Gates, who Musk is angry at for taking a short position in which the Microsoft co-founder bet that Tesla’s stock would decline in value. (It did.)

Allegations of Sexual and Racial Harassment at Tesla

SpaceX isn’t the only Musk led company where complaints about harassment have been made. TechCrunch reported:

A California county court judge ruled Monday that a sexual harassment suit against Tesla can proceed in court, rejecting the automaker’s request for closed-door arbitration, according to Bloomberg.

That means that Tesla must defend itself in open court against claims that female employees face “rampant sexual harassment” at its Fremont, California, factory. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kaus denied the automaker’s request in a one-sentence order without explanation, even though the plaintiff in the class-action case signed an arbitration agreement giving up her right to sue….

Tesla also faces harassment suits filed by at least six other female employees since late last year alleging that they were subjected to discrimination, catcalling, unwanted advances and physical contact at work.

Last year, a former contract employee at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., named Owen Diaz was awarded $137 million in a racial discrimination lawsuit against Musk’s electric car company. A judge later upheld the decision but slashed the amount to $15 million based on awards made in similar cases. NPR reported:

“That’s the maximum,” Larry Organ, Diaz’ lawyer and founder of the California Civil Rights Law Group, told NPR. “It wasn’t because [the judge] found anything wrong with what Mr. Diaz said or that Mr. Diaz wasn’t injured or anything like that. It’s just based on a comparison.”

Diaz testified that employees called him the N-word among other racial slurs. A Tesla supervisor called him the N-word “more than 30 times,” Diaz testified, according to court documents obtained by NPR.

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing is also suing Tesla over alleged racism and harassment of Black employees in the same factory.

Diaz’ treatment is allegedly to be part of a broad pattern of discrimination and racism that prompted the state of California’s lawsuit earlier this year. NPR reported:

The lawsuit follows three years of investigation into Tesla and alleges that Black and African American employees at the company’s Fremont plant are “segregated to the lowest levels.”

The lawsuit describes multiple instances of racist language and drawings toward Black employees, penalizing Black employees more harshly than white employees and denying Black employees career advancement opportunities and equal pay for work similar to that of other employees.

“These numerous complaints by Black and/or African American workers about racial harassment, racial discrimination, and retaliation lodged over a span of almost a decade have been futile,” the lawsuit says. “Tesla has continued to deflect and evade responsibility. While it claims to not tolerate racial harassment or discrimination at its factories, Tesla’s investigations of complaints are not compliant with law.”

The lawsuit says Tesla “turned, and continue to turn, a blind eye” to the years of complaints from Black employees at the factory. For example, Tesla allegedly is slow to clean up racist graffiti, including ones with swastikas, KKK, the N-word and other hate symbols that were drawn in common areas and on the factory machines.

The lawsuit says one Black worker saw “hang N[ ]” written next to an image of a noose in the bathroom of the break room. The same worker also saw “all monkeys work outside” and “fuck N[ ]” written on the walls of the break room. The writing and drawings allegedly remained for months.

Tesla said in a blog post that the allegations did not represent current working conditions and that it has vigorously investigated complaints of racial discrimination and abuse.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) intends to file a lawsuit against Tesla alleging systematic racial discrimination and harassment. This follows a three-year investigation during which the DFEH—whose mission is supposedly to protect workers—has never once raised any concern about current workplace practices at Tesla. Rather, the lawsuit appears focused on alleged misconduct by production associates at the Fremont factory that took place between 2015 and 2019.

Tesla strongly opposes all forms of discrimination and harassment and has a dedicated Employee Relations team that responds to and investigates all complaints. We also have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team whose work is shown in this public report. Tesla has always disciplined and terminated employees who engage in misconduct, including those who use racial slurs or harass others in different ways. We recently rolled out an additional training program that reinforces Tesla’s requirement that all employees must treat each other with respect and reminds employees about the numerous ways they can report concerns, including anonymously. Above all, Tesla continues to seek to provide a workplace that is safe, respectful, fair, and inclusive­—all of which are vital to achieving our mission.

Over the past five years, the DFEH has been asked on almost 50 occasions by individuals who believe they were discriminated against or harassed to investigate Tesla. On every single occasion, when the DFEH closed an investigation, it did not find misconduct against Tesla. It therefore strains credibility for the agency to now allege, after a three-year investigation, that systematic racial discrimination and harassment somehow existed at Tesla. A narrative spun by the DFEH and a handful of plaintiff firms to generate publicity is not factual proof.

Tesla said it would ask DFEH “to pause the case and take other steps to ensure that facts and evidence will be heard.”