Twnety-one current and former employees of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin published a damning essay on Thursday saying the company “turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs.”
Co-authored by Blue Origin’s former head of employee communications Alexandra Abrams, the essay describes multiple accounts of sexist and dismissive behavior from some of the company’s “one-hundred percent” male senior technical and program leaders and says “professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled.”
The employees accuse the company’s CEO Bob Smith of brushing off dissent by discouraging staff from raising questions during internal town halls, asking a colleague to track “troublemakers or agitators,” and forcing out employees for speaking out about safety issues related to Blue Origin’s New Shepard tourism rocket. “Smith’s inner circle of loyalists makes unilateral decisions, often without the buy-in of engineers, other experts, or senior leaders across various departments,” the employees say.
In an interview with CBS this morning, Abrams, speaking out for the first time, said she was fired by Blue Origin in 2019, with her manager saying “Bob and I can’t trust you anymore,” referring to the CEO. “You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time,” Abrams said in the interview. “I’ve gotten far enough away from it that I’m not afraid enough to let them silence me anymore.”
Alexandra Abrams, a former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, is speaking out against the company to @LaurieSegall.
“You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible.” pic.twitter.com/JHuFY3cjcs
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) September 30, 2021
In a statement to The Verge, a Blue Origin spokesperson said, “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.”
The spokesperson also said Abrams was fired “after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” a claim Abrams denied to CBS News.
The essay, published on Lioness, a platform for whistleblowers, indicated Blue Origin sometimes overlooked safety issues to favor speed, amid heated competition with other billionaire-backed companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. “Competing with other billionaires—and ‘making progress for Jeff’—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule,” the employees said.
Blue Origin has struggled with internal strife in the past.
In 2020, The Verge reported that Blue Origin employees were outraged by the pressure they faced from senior leadership to continue in-person work and travel for a New Shepard test launch during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the country was locking down to curb the virus’s spread. Responding to employee concerns in one meeting, Jeff Ashby, the company’s senior mission assurance director and a former NASA astronaut, said: “I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?”