This year in tech has Elon Musk’s presence looming large over it, thanks mainly to his proposed acquisition of Twitter in a deal that could be worth about $44 billion (opens in new tab). That all seems to be going a bit awry, with critics divided over whether Musk is trying to drive down what seems like an over-inflated price, or back away from the deal entirely.
One of the reasons the Twitter deal has been such news is the nature of Musk himself: Probably the most high-profile billionaire in the world outside of Bill Gates, and a man with fingers in many important pies. The two most notable are Tesla and SpaceX, and Musk’s critics wonder just how many major businesses this guy can possibly run at once: the fact he’s simultaneously clowning himself on Twitter does not help, of course.
This was the subject of an open letter by SpaceX employees, which was circulated on social media and first reported on by the Verge (opens in new tab). The letter called Musk’s public behaviour and specifically his tweeting “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment […] every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company.”
It cites the SpaceX workplace policy of ‘No assholes’ and asks that management “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior.”
The letter became public on Wednesday 14 June. The New York Times has now reported that multiple employees involved in organising the letter were fired (opens in new tab) by Thursday afternoon. It quotes an email from Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, which has been sent to SpaceX employees:
“You may have received an unsolicited request from a small group of SpaceX employees for your signature on an ‘open letter’ yesterday and your participation in a related survey. Based on diverse employee feedback, this has upset many. That is, the letter, solicitations and general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views.”
Shotwell goes on to list various projects that SpaceX is currently working on and some of the company’s immediate priorities. “We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism,” she writes. The email goes on to say that SpaceX has proper channels for any workplace concerns, and that blanket emailing of colleagues on matters like this is unacceptable.
“We performed an investigation and have terminated a number of employees involved. I am sorry for this distraction. Please stay focused on the SpaceX mission, and use your time at work to do your best work. This is how we will get to Mars.”
It is not clear how many SpaceX employees were fired as a result of the investigation, though Reuters reports it’s at least five staff (opens in new tab).
There’s a lot of context to this letter. It came after months of Musk behaving childishly on Twitter, which at times has verged on farce: Such as him recently getting into a fight with videogame satire website Hard Drive, which clowned him on the social media site (opens in new tab) before publishing an article with the impeccable headline ‘Elon Musk offers to buy rake he stepped on (opens in new tab)‘.
Over this period, Musk has also faced more serious accusations. In May, a Business Insider report (opens in new tab) based on a 2018 settlement alleged that Musk had propositioned a flight attendant for a sexual massage during a flight to London in 2016. The attendant claimed he had exposed himself, and offered to buy her a horse.
Musk describes the story as a “politically motivated hit piece” and says the accusations are “utterly untrue.” He unfortunately also went on to joke about them on his Twitter feed, saying to another user “if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse. (opens in new tab)“
As well as Musk’s public-facing issues, there’s also been some disquiet about his approach to remote working. He told SpaceX employees in early June that they have to be in the office 40 hours a week or they’ll be fired, which may also have been a factor in the letter.
Musk and SpaceX are yet to comment on the news: Most recently, he’s been tweeting about Top Gun: Maverick and the declining US birth rate.
Few would dispute that companies have the right to fire employees who step out of line. Whether an open letter qualifies for a sanction this extreme is a stickier subject. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, however, surely we can all agree: Firing employees who complain about you is one hell of a look for a self-declared “free speech absolutist (opens in new tab).”