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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Chief Blue Origin complaint author disputes cause of termination, while the space company’s CEO does damage control – TechCrunch

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Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith wasted no time responding to allegations of a hostile work environment, sending an internal letter to employees Thursday encouraging staff to speak to him directly or via an in-house anonymous hotline with their concerns. Of course, it’s standard practice for companies like Blue Origin to prefer handling complaints internally rather than in the public arena.

The letter from Smith, which was first obtained by CNBC, comes on the heels of an essay jointly composed by 21 current and former Blue Origin employees detailing serious concerns regarding safety and sexual harassment at the company.

Alexandra Abrams, former head of employee communications, is the sole named author of the essay. She told TechCrunch in a new interview that she decided to go public with her identity because she felt a sense of responsibility for other employees.

“I really felt like I had compromised my integrity at Blue Origin,” she said. “I did my best, but I was Bob’s executive communicator and helped make him look good.”

The essay details two instances of alleged sexual harassment by senior executives, including one instances of a senior leader being let go after groping a female employee — notably, Abrams said, only five of the 21 people who contributed to the essay are men. The essay also alleges that safety at Blue Origin took a backseat to speed of execution, with leadership insisting on a breakneck pace that wasn’t supported by adequate staffing or resources.

“SpaceX has always been much better staffed than Blue Origin,” Abrams said.

Blue Origin said in a statement that Abrams was dismissed “for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.” However, Abrams said she never received any warnings, verbal or written, from management regarding issues related to federal export control regulations.

Instead, she says her termination came after initiating a project to develop an internal employee app. Two weeks after that app, called Voyager, went live, it was discovered that part of its architecture was not secure – this is a major concern in the aerospace industry, as all communications tools must be compliant with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a set of regulations governing tech related to defense and space.

Abrams says she immediately escalated the issue. While senior management conducted an investigation and found no export violations occurred, senior executives reportedly told her that “she could no longer be trusted” and fired her.

“As a communications professional, and part of the non-technical staff, I was not responsible for certifying or approving any compliance of any 3rd party software architecture. And to-date, as far as I’m aware, the software in question is still used by Blue Origin, and Amazon,” she added.

Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was “reviewing the information” detailed in the essay. Abrams said that the agency has not reached out to her, but that she would “very much welcome” that.

“I feel like I’m fulfilling my job description as employee communications for the first time.”

Bob Smith’s full internal team email on Abram’s letter follows below:

Team Blue,

Today, you may have seen that some claims were made against our team.

As with any criticism, whether personal or professional, and whether the criticism is fair or baseless, it is never easy to hear. It requires reflection and humility to sort through what is useful and what is not.

It is particularly difficult and painful, for me, to hear claims being levied that attempt to characterize our entire team in a way that doesn’t align with the character and capability that I see at Blue Origin every day.

Yet, one of our Blue Leadership Principles states that “Leaders are sincerely open-minded, and examine their own strongest convictions with humility. They value diversity, in all of its forms, since different viewpoints result in novel ideas. Their openness enables them to trust those around them – and to earn the trust of others in turn.”

We wrote and published that principle, and others, and will today, and always, be self-critical and hold ourselves to the highest standard.

While we reflect on what we can learn and improve, I do want to reassure the team on a few points.

First, the New Shepard team went through a methodical and pain-staking process to certify our vehicle for First Human Flight. Anyone that claims otherwise is uninformed and simply incorrect. That team is appropriately proud of the work they’ve done and we should be as well.

It should also be emphatically stated that we have no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues including a 24/7 anonymous hotline for employees, we investigate and act on any findings, and we will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct. As always, I welcome and encourage any member of Team Blue to speak directly with me if they have any concerns on any topic at any time.

Finally, it should never be doubted that we have an amazing team that is doing amazing work.

Our team is comprised of the best and brightest professionals in the aerospace industry. People who are dedicated, work hard and are passionate about our mission.

We’ll continue to rapidly grow that talented team, stay focused on our efforts, and support each other. And, step by step, we will make even greater strides.

Gradatim Ferociter,

Bob

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