May 27, 2023

Blue Origin has a toxic culture, former and current employees say

Blue Origin has a toxic culture, former and current employees say
Blue Origin has a toxic culture, former and current employees sayBlue Origin has a toxic culture, former and current employees say
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith (black hat) walks with Jeff Bezos after his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space in July 2021.
Enlarge / Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith (black hat) walks with Jeff Bezos after his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space in July 2021.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A former communications executive at Blue Origin and 20 other current and former employees have written a blistering essay about the company’s culture, citing safety concerns, sexist attitudes, and a lack of commitment to the planet’s future.

“In our experience, Blue Origin’s culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs,” the essay authors write. “That’s not the world we should be creating here on Earth, and certainly not as our springboard to a better one.”

Published Thursday on the Lioness website, the essay is signed publicly by only Alexandra Abrams, who led employee communications for the company until she was terminated in 2019. The other signatories, a majority of whom were engineers, declined to publicly disclose their names because they did not want to jeopardize employment at Blue Origin or harm their prospects in the aerospace industry for other jobs.

At times, the essay is shocking in its candor. Many of the essay’s authors said they would not feel safe flying on a Blue Origin vehicle. And the anecdotes of sexism and an unhealthy work culture are vivid.

“Former and current employees have had experiences they could only describe as dehumanizing, and are terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet,” the authors write. “Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after having their passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment. One senior program leader with decades in the aerospace and defense industry said working at Blue Origin was the worst experience of her life.”

In response to the essay, Blue Origin issued a statement that denigrated Abrams but did not directly respond to some of the allegations in the essay.

“Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations,” the company 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.”

Abrams told Ars that she never received any warnings, verbal or written, from management regarding issues involving federal export control regulations. She has long weighed going public with this letter, she said, knowing it would open her up to expansive litigation. “They can come after me for as much money as they deem appropriate,” she said.

Bezos and Smith

After publication of the essay, Ars spoke with several current and former employees who have provided reliable information in the past about the company. Although it is clear the essay was a product of disgruntled workers, these sources agreed that there were elements of truth in the essay. For these sources, the withering criticism of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and his hand-picked chief executive, Bob Smith, rang especially true.

The essay authors write, “Professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled. Smith personally told one of us to not make it easy for employees to ask questions at company town halls—one of the only available forums for live, open discussion.”

These town halls are typically moderated so that employees cannot directly ask questions of Smith. In one infamous exchange, there were apparently so few substantive questions Smith was willing to answer that the moderator resorted to asking Smith what his favorite ice cream was. “Sorbet,” Smith answered.

Another example of unwelcome management tactics cited in the essay was Bezos’ decision, after the Supreme Court ruling in the Epic Systems arbitration case, to force employees to sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court.

“In 2019, Blue Origin leadership requested that all employees sign new contracts with a non-disparagement clause binding them and their heirs from ever saying something that would ‘hurt the goodwill of the company,'” the essay authors write. “Contracts for some departing employees now mandated they pay the corporation’s legal fees if the corporation chose to sue them for breach of contract. The inner circle of leadership tracked who signed and discussed contingency plans for those who did not.”

Sources confirmed to Ars that they were indeed faced with the choice of signing such an onerous contract or realizing they would eventually have to leave Blue Origin. It seemed grossly unfair.

Blue reputation

The essay is likely to further impair Blue Origin’s standing in the space community, where the company has gained a reputation for being lawsuit-happy, particularly after Blue Origin sued NASA upon losing the Human Landing System competition. It may also further damage Smith’s standing as CEO of the company. But whether this ultimately prompts Bezos to fire Smith, who has a 19 percent favorability rating on Glassdoor, remains to be seen.

Ultimately, this is Bezos’ mess to clean up. Sources say he is continuing to spend billions of dollars as Blue Origin seeks to complete development of the BE-4 rocket engine, build New Glenn, litigate the Human Landing System contract, and move into new areas, such as low-Earth orbit space stations. But his company’s culture is fragile, if not entirely broken. It will take more than money to fix that.

Abrams said she believed in the Bezos mystique for a long time. He has all the resources to build a great space company and to change the world for the better. And it has been painful to watch as Bezos’ actions have fallen short of his words.

“I would tell him that there is still time to be the person, and for Blue Origin to be the company, that we thought you were going to be,” she said. “We came forward with this because we were so passionate about that.”