SpaceX Accused Of Sexual Harassment As Fight With Ex-Employees Intensifies

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Executives at Elon Musk’s SpaceX discriminated against women, joked about sexual harassment and fired workers for raising concerns, seven former employees allege in California civil rights complaints viewed by Bloomberg.

The California-based workers, who were fired in 2022 after circulating an open letter critical of Musk’s behavior, argue that the aerospace company’s actions violated the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The law bans sex-based discrimination and retaliation against employees who raise concerns in the workplace. Their claims were detailed in filings with the California Civil Rights Department that were sent to SpaceX last month.

The filings open up a new front in a contentious legal battle between SpaceX and the workers. In November 2022, the ex-employees also brought complaints about the company to the US National Labor Relations Board, saying SpaceX violated federal labor law by firing them. Last month, the NLRB’s prosecutors agreed, accusing SpaceX of illegally retaliating against the workers. In response, the Musk-led company sued the agency.

SpaceX said in its suit the NLRB accusations are likely to harm the company’s reputation and its ability to recruit new employees. If the company loses, it might also have to reinstate the workers with backpay. The employees were all engineers, according to their lawyer Laurie Burgess. Now, because of the new complaints in California, SpaceX faces the threat of losing to the ex-workers at the state level, too. The California CRD can seek compensatory and punitive damages.

SpaceX, which didn’t respond to inquiries, has denied wrongdoing in the NLRB case. Companies typically have 30 days to respond to California CRD complaints.

Cases filed with the California CRD are investigated by agency staff, who can dismiss them, pursue mediation, choose to sue the company or greenlight workers to file lawsuits themselves. Ex-employees said in interviews that they hope their civil rights complaints will bring more scrutiny to the company’s culture, and show current workers they aren’t alone in their concerns.

“Bringing things to light is the first step to actually making it better,” said Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the complainants, in an interview.

The ex-employees’ concerns about SpaceX stretch back to their early days at the company, according to Holland-Thielen. When she was hired in March 2018, she became a “level 1” employee, despite having similar experience to men who were designated senior level engineers, according to her complaint.

Even after getting promoted, Holland-Thielen was excluded from assignments, meetings and decisions because of her gender, she alleges. After she raised concerns with her manager that a male colleague was taking credit for her work, she received a performance review accusing her of being “too emotional” and saying she “should be more humble,” according to her filing.

“I was left out of so many meetings that I was supposed to be in; I was left out of so many decisions that were my decision to make,” Holland-Thielen said in an interview. “I was forgotten on projects; I was forgotten in planning.”

On one occasion, Holland-Thielen alleges in the complaint, she asked to talk to a manager about “inappropriate behavior” by a colleague. Before she could speak, she said the manager saw downward-pointing data on her computer screen, made a sexual allusion and said, “How can we get it, up, up, up?”

Musk also frequently posted what employees in the filings call inappropriate content on Twitter, the social media platform he now owns and has renamed X, according to the California filings.

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The workers allege they couldn’t easily avoid Musk’s posts because he also made important company announcements on the channel. His tweets were regularly disseminated in company venues, such as employee chat groups, according to several of the fired workers’ filings.

“It was very common for people to quote things that Elon had previously said, when it comes to engineering practices or jokes he had made,” said Tom Moline, one of the fired engineers, in an interview. “Basically anything that would make a freshman frat initiate laugh was fair game in large parts of the company.”

The workers’ frustrations with SpaceX became public in 2022. That year, Business Insider published an article detailing separate claims that Musk had sexually harassed a SpaceX flight attendant by touching her, exposing himself without her consent and offering her a horse in exchange for a massage.

Musk denied the accusation and made light of it on Twitter. In May 2022, he wrote to a user, “Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”

Holland-Thielen writes in her filing the company was also internally dismissive of the incident. She alleged that an HR director said something to the effect of, “I’ve never been sexual harassed [sic], I must not be hot enough,” and giggled after describing harassment claims as involving “fifty shades of grey,” a reference to the steamy romance novels. After the publication of the Business Insider article, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell sent an email companywide defending Musk.

“Anyone who knows Elon like I do, knows he would never conduct or condone this alleged inappropriate behavior,” Shotwell wrote.

In response, the workers penned the open letter, calling Musk’s behavior “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment,” which was seen by the Verge and other news outlets. Several employees’ complaints say they were then called into meetings with executives, including Shotwell, and fired.

“They told me that my employment was being terminated because they had determined that I was responsible for conceiving, writing, and distributing the open letter,” Moline alleges in his complaint to the California CRD.

A hearing for their NLRB case is scheduled for early March, but SpaceX has asked a judge to put that proceeding on hold while considering the company’s argument that the agency’s structure violates the constitution’s “separation of powers.” In a January filing seeking a court injunction that would halt the proceedings, the company cited its work for the US government as a reason it shouldn’t be subjected to the burden of a labor board trial.

Being subjected to the NLRB hearing, SpaceX argued, “distracts from its important missions, including launching satellites critical to US defense and intelligence agencies and flying NASA astronauts to space.”