Like most other geeks, I enjoyed William Shatner’s trip into space and have to give Jeff Bezos kudos for finding an excellent way to promote space tourism. That stunt aside, though, Blue Origin’s public image has been taking some hits.
The most poignant was Elon Musk’s one emoji tweet (a #2 ribbon) to celebrate BO’s maiden launch, but that’s nothing compared to the expose that recently appeared in the Washington Post. Here’s the headline:
Inside Blue Origin: Employees say toxic, dysfunctional ‘bro culture’ led to mistrust, low morale and delays at Jeff Bezos’s space venture. ‘It’s condescending. It’s demoralizing.’ said one former top executive of conditions prompting many to leave the company.
And that was the positive part. Seriously, though, Bezos’s business ventures aren’t exactly known as a worker’s paradises, but if there were any part of his empire where you’d think it might be fun to work it would be in a company that’s basically a life-size model rocketry hobby.
But that’s apparently not the case, if the Post (which Bezos owns) can be believed. The article quotes the company’s former head of that 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.”
Another former employee was quoted as saying: “The C-suite is out of touch with the rank-and-file pretty severely. It’s very dysfunctional. It’s condescending. It’s demoralizing, and what happens is we can’t make progress and end up with huge delays.”
The Post article isn’t the type of criticism that can be glossed over with the kind of “we work hard and play hard” verbiage that high tech firms tend trot out when their cultures are revealed as snake (Python?) pits.
No, the Post article is a broadside that connects bad management practice with mission failure. It’s an attack that begs for a strong response. However, the best Blue Origin could come up with is this weak beer:
“In a statement to The Post, Mary Plunkett, Blue Origin’s senior vice president of human resources, said the company …has an anonymous hotline that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week for employees, ‘where any claims of this nature are registered and then investigated.’ She said the company also encourages workers to contact human resources or senior leadership, ensuring that ‘these conversations are strictly confidential and we listen to any claims with empathy and concern.'”
Where do I start?
Look, anybody who’s been around the corporate politics block more than once knows that “anonymous” complaints are almost always recorded and, if the complaint involves a senior executive, that recording will played for that executive, who will immediately recognize the voice and punish accordingly.
Even if by some chance it’s not recorded, for an “anonymous” complaint to be investigate-able it would need to contain enough information so that the offender (who will definitely be told the substance of the complaint) will know immediately who left the complaint. And again, punish accordingly.
The worst part of the Blue Origin response is the idea that having a conversation with Human Resources or “senior leadership” will result in anything other than, you guessed it, the complainer being punished accordingly.
The purpose of HR is not to represent the best interests of the employees. The purpose of HR is to prevent the company from being sued. As such, complaining to HR about being harassed is like giving your soon-to-be-ex-spouse’s lawyer a detailed list of all the time you’ve been unfaithful.
Having a conversation with senior leadership is even dumber. There’s no political upside for a senior leader do anything about such complaints. But there’s a huge political upside to giving your boss a heads-up that he’s got a snitch on staff. It’s a real “hey, you owe me, bro!” moment.
In closing and in all fairness, I think maybe it’s not too much a stretch of the imagination that there’s a ‘bro culture’ at the company whose product resembles… well, you know.