Over 20 current and former employees of Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, have written and published an open letter slamming its "toxic" workplace culture, the safety of its spacecraft, and the company’s policy on environmental issues.
The damning open letter — titled “Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past” — was published on the platform Lioness on September 30. Signatories, including Alexandra Abrams, former head of Blue Origin employee communications, feel that upper management was so obsessed with leading the "billionaire space race," they skimped on safety precautions and addressing widespread problems within the company culture.
Among its many allegations, the letter claims that Blue Origin is "rife with sexism" and its senior leaders are "known to be consistently inappropriate with women," including some that have been reported to HR for sexual harassment on multiple occasions. The letter argues that Blue Origin currently has more than 3,600 employees, but 100 percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men. This, they allege, has fostered a toxic work environment in which many of the senior leadership have a “clear bias against women.”
“[A] 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,” one passage reads.
The executive was eventually let go after “physically groping a female subordinate,” the letter alleges.
As per the letter, Blue Origin leadership requested that all employees sign new contracts in 2010 with a non-disparagement clause that would prevent them from saying something that could “hurt the goodwill of the company.” The signatories say this was effectively signing away employees’ rights to resolve employment disputes in court or to publicly speak out about harassment in the workplace.
Along with allegations of rampant sexism, the letter also highlights safety concerns about the spacecraft manufactured by Blue Origin. They claim that upper management became increasingly impatient with the test flight schedule of New Shepard, the company's high profile “space tourist” rocket system that blasted Bezos into space in July this year. The letter says workers were pushed to scale up to more than 40 flights per year, which many feared would seriously compromise flight safety.
“We have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality,” the letter says. "Today, Blue Origin is selling seats on rockets, stating “safety is their top mission” despite the fact that very few regulations are in place to ensure that is truly the case."
A spokesperson for the US Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees launch safety, commented on the allegations, saying “the FAA takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”
On top of all this, the letter cites environmental concerns, highlighting that Blue Origin doesn’t appear to have “any concrete plans” to become carbon neutral or significantly reduce its environmental footprint.
Finally, the essay questions a world where people unable to run a respectful company are using "their wealth and resulting power to create a blueprint for humanity’s future".
“Should we as a society allow ego-driven individuals with endless caches of money and very little accountability to be the ones to shape that future?” the letter concludes, with a final "Ad Astra" parting shot.
Blue Origin has responded to the open letter with a short statement saying: "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. We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”