SpaceX employees fired for criticising CEO Elon Musk

Over 400 employees signed a letter saying Musk broke a "no assholes" company policy.

Tan Min-Wei | June 20, 2022, 11:45 PM

A day after technology site The Verge revealed an open letter circulated by SpaceX employees that called out Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s behaviour, as many as five employees responsible were fired.

The company called the letter “overreacting activism” and a “distraction”.

Letter writing campaign

SpaceX is the United State’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent privately held space exploration company. It employs nearly 14,000 people in the U.S. and is famous for many technological milestones, such as reusable booster rockets for its orbital rockets, and its Starlink satellite internet service.

It is one of several high tech companies that Elon Musk, currently the world’s richest man, directly operates. Others include Tesla and the Boring Company. Musk is also in the midst of buying social media platform Twitter for US$44 billion (S$61 billion).

On June 16, a letter criticising SpaceX’s leadership and specifically calling out Musk’s public and online behaviour was revealed by The Verge. It had been shared with over 2,500 employees in an internal chat system, where they were asked to sign the letter.

The letter said that Musk’s behaviour “in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for [them], particularly in recent weeks". It also specifically pointed out Musk’s tweets as a “de facto public statement" by SpaceX.

“No assholes”

The letter cited the company’s "no asshole" policy, which was described by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell at a commencement speech she gave at Northwestern’s 2021 graduation ceremony, CNBC reported.

She said, "At SpaceX we have a 'no asshole' policy. These kinds of people – assholes – interrupt others, they shut down or co-opt conversation, and they create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute."

She urged the graduates to “listen harder, not talk louder”, and embrace ideas from coworkers, “especially when they differ greatly from yours”.

It appears to be this spirit that the letter writers invoked the “no asshole” policy. In the letter, they say that the whole leadership was failing to apply the policy equally.

They demanded three action items, that SpaceX publicly distance itself from Musk’s tweets, hold the leadership equally accountable for the working environment, and to define and respond equally to unacceptable behaviour.

Terminated due to the letter

However, these pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The Wall Street Journal reports that up to five employees have been terminated because of the letter.

Shotwell released a letter of her own about the firings. According to The Verge, she said that the writers had inappropriately “pressured them (their coworkers) to sign onto something that did not reflect their views”.

She added that “blanketing thousands of people across the company with repeated unsolicited email and asking them to sign letters and fill out unsponsored surveys during the work day is not acceptable”.

The writers rejected Shotwell's interpretation of events, saying that over 400 employees had signed the letter before it was removed.

Shotwell also noted that the letter was introduced in the run up to three rocket launches in 36 hours.


Experts are divided over whether SpaceX’s actions were illegal. The Wall Street Journal points out that the U.S. generally operates on “at will” employment laws, which allows an employer to “hire and fire workers for just about any reason except discriminatory ones”.

Coupled with the fact that the U.S.' freedom of speech laws only applies to the U.S. government restricting speech, the fired employees had limited options to challenge their firing.

This was not a view shared by experts asked by The Verge, who said that the letter was about working conditions, and thus could possibly be covered by the U.S' National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent government body that oversees labour law.

What is notable is that this is not the first time a Musk-controlled company has run afoul of the NLRB. In 2021, CNBC reported that the Musk-run Tesla was told to reinstate an employee fired for union advocacy, and that Musk should delete an anti-union tweet.

Musk is also in the midst of buying over Twitter, and has complained that the social media platform could do better in promoting free speech.

It is likely that the tweets the letter complained about were related to the Twitter takeover. However Musk is a prolific and controversial tweeter, and the complaint could have stemmed from any number of his tweets.

Some might also consider it ironic that SpaceX is firing its employees for speaking their mind, while their CEO is ardently advocating free speech.

Top image via SpaceX/YouTube