'Overreaching activism' | SpaceX employees spoke out against Elon Musk's behavior. They paid for it with their jobs

SpaceX employees spoke out against Elon Musk's behavior. They paid for it with their jobs

Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX has reportedly fired a group of employees who criticized their billionaire boss in an open letter.

Reports in the New York Times claimed SpaceX employees penned the letter denouncing Musk’s activity on Twitter, describing his behaviour as “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment” and asked the company to “rein him in.”

Amid his ongoing $44billion bid to takeover to Twitter, Musk has been hitting headlines for the wrong reasons of late.

Most recently, he issued Tesla workers with an ultimatum of returning to the office for 40 hours a week or find a new job.

He also spoke out following controversies at Netflix, where accusations emerged that the firm was firing it’s “wokest” staff.

Musk praised the streaming giant for combatting what he deemed a “woke mind virus” which was “making Netflix unwatchable”.

And in May, he was accused of propositioning a flight attendant for a sexual massage during a flight to London in 2016.

The open letter called to SpaceX’s leaders to “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior” and “define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behavior.”

However, in an email obtained by NYT, SpaceX’s president and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed that an unconfirmed number of the letter’s organizers had subsequently been fired.

Shotwell wrote: “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.

“We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism.”

Shotwell also wrote: “Blanketing thousands of people across the company with repeated unsolicited emails and asking them to sign letters and fill out unsponsored surveys during the work day is not acceptable.

“Please stay focused on the SpaceX mission, and use your time to do your best work.

“This is how we will get to Mars.”

Fired for speaking out

It is not the first time that employees at a major firm have been let go after speaking out against their bosses. In February 2022, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a trio of former Google software engineers, Rebecca Rivers, Sophie Waldman, and Paul Duke, who were fired in November 2019.

The tech behemoth claims they were fired for leaking confidential information. Metro reported that an internal Google memo, issued at the time of Rivers, Waldman and Duke’s sackings, said they were let go for “clear and repeated violations of our data security policies” including “systematic searches for information outside the scope of their job”, which they deny.

Instead, the cohort claim they were sacked for speaking out against company actions they didn’t agree with, such as a controversial cloud computing contract with the Trump administration’s Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in 2019 – which has been linked to alleged human rights abuse at the US border points.

More interestingly, the trio claim they were unfairly dismissed because they believed they had a “contractual obligation” to speak out, due to Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto.

Workplace activism on the rise

Recent statistics showcase how much employee activism is one the rise – so much so that a study by Weber Shandwick previously revealed that four in ten workers had spoken up to support or criticise their employers’ actions.

Similarly, law firm Herbert Smith Freehills highlighted the growing concern for employers when it comes to activism, as its Future of Work report found that 80% of companies expect it to rise.

Social media could certainly be a contributing factor, as the platforms offer employees the opportunity to express criticism of their firm. However, it could also be down to the new generation of workers – Millennials and Gen-Z.

These workers are known to identify strongly with purpose and how a business aligns itself to employees’ own beliefs.

This is reflected in stats shared by Covestro, which found that roughly 70% of executives indicated that over the last five years they’ve seen an increase in the number of Millennials (71%), Gen Xers (69%) and Baby Boomers (46%) who want the opportunity for more social purpose work while on the job.

The flipside being that employees could feel like speaking out if they feel the purpose of the job they were hired for matches up to day-to-day machinations inside the organisationHow HR can deal with activism

How HR can deal with activism

Employees may make a stand against their employer because they are disengaged or are simply responding to “a lack of open dialogue on change of behaviours or practices in organisations that could be interpreted as unfair, or incites inequality”, Andrea Smith, HR Director, Transformation UK&I at multinational beauty firm Coty, previously told HR Grapevine.

She said that to manage this within a workforce, HR teams should consider rolling out employee opinion surveys, which would allow staff to feel they are making a difference and contributing to policy changes, while also helping to mould a culture that is inclusive of everyone.

Smith explained: “A lack of accessible open dialogue in companies can quickly escalate to employees using external methods and platforms that can damage employer branding and reputation on corporate social responsibility.”

However, while many cases have risen that suggest employee activism focussed either on an expression of personal beliefs and carries the freedom to express individual views, Coty’s HR leader stated that this type of behaviour should not be offensive or “incompatible with the dignity of others”.

As such, she warned that employers should ensure they have a clear code of conduct that applies to activism in the workplace. “Company code of conducts should be clear on rules, ethical principles and vision for your business,” she continued.

“A company code of conduct should also be transparently clear on employee standards and expectations that reflects the organisation's core values and overall company culture.”

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