Alexandra Abrams, who worked on Blue Origin’s communications team for two and a half years, was once so convinced she’d spend her entire life working for Jeff Bezos’ space company that she considered tattooing its feather logo on her body.
However, she is now a whistleblower, exposing what she and others claim is a toxic culture within Blue Origin. She published a critical essay on September 30th, co-authored by 20 other anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees. The authors allege a workplace that tolerated sexism among a clique of senior executives close to Bezos and cut corners in a race to meet deadlines and beat rival space entrepreneurs to space, demoralizing workers and endangering their safety of their project.
Blue Origin responded with a blanket statement, but did not deny any of the specific allegations in the letter. “Blue Origin has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or harassment,” the statement says.
While Bezos’ highly publicized July flight—and indeed every flight of the New Shepard in recent years—appeared to be a success, the company’s next rocket, the New Glenn, and the rocket engines that will power it have faced significant delays. The allegations made by Abrams and her colleagues explain one aspect of Blue’s unpredictable schedule.
Abrams told Quartz a different story, recalling a meeting with Smith and other senior executives in 2019 about a campaign to build employee excitement around a Super Bowl commercial, which was later pulled from the air due to its connection to Bezos’ divorce. She informed Smith that the company’s morale was low.
She claims that, while the company’s engineers worked hard to deliver the best products possible, senior leaders tasked them with doing too much, too quickly, and with too few people to meet their objectives. The US Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight, has announced that it will look into safety issues at the company, which is currently planning a second flight with passengers, including two tech entrepreneurs, on Oct. 12.
However, as Abrams points out, when it comes to space tourism, the FAA only has jurisdiction over public safety—ensuring that errant rockets do not endanger nearby towns or air traffic. Passenger safety is explicitly prohibited as a result of a law designed to encourage the fledgling space tourism industry by reducing red tape. Abrams’ final position at Blue Origin was as head of employee communications, which entailed communicating company policies to employees and providing feedback to senior leaders. The position provided her with valuable insight across the company, with opportunities to meet with executives and employees from various departments.
According to Blue Origin, Abrams was fired “after multiple warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.” She believes the company is referring to an internal app development effort that inadvertently left some company data on foreign servers, a problem she assisted in reporting and resolving.
Breaking government rules on space technology can result in termination, but Abrams denied receiving any such warnings, either written or verbal. Instead, she claims she was fired as a result of a disagreement over changing employee contracts to require binding arbitration for disputes such as sexual harassment. A policy like this prevents employees from seeking accountability in court and instead shifts the venue to a private process in which workers are at a significant disadvantage to their employers.
The practice became a hot topic after Google reversed a similar policy in order to settle a shareholder lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by several top executives. When Blue Origin proposed incorporating binding arbitration into its employee agreements, Abrams resisted, warning of a backlash. She was eventually able to persuade executives to remove sexual harassment from the arbitration policy. However, she claims that the incident cost her the trust of Smith and other senior leaders. It also cost her trust in Blue Origin, she claims, after the company’s general counsel told her that the arbitration clause was important to Bezos.
The new contract language included an onerous non-disparagement clause in which employees agreed to pay Blue Origin’s legal fees if the clause was ever enforced. Before being fired, Abrams signed the updated employee agreement. She is preparing for the possibility that Blue Origin will file a lawsuit against her, which could bankrupt her.