Disruption at SpaceX: What employers can learn

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“It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.”

Displayed on an image of outer space on SpaceX’s mission page, this statement attributed to Elon Musk – founder, CEO and chief engineer – can be compelling, ideological and ambitious; but this contrasts sharply with the work experience recounted by his former employee.

Like any business, SpaceX’s reputation today is a reflection of its behavior yesterday, an expert told HR Dive, and in the public eye, for better or worse, words, actions and character of the management of the company are inseparable from the company itself. Failure to understand this can invite teachable moments on the global internet stage and cause lasting damage to corporate culture.

What happened at SpaceX

Ashley Kosak started as an intern at SpaceX in 2017. She was a mission integration engineer when, after submitting reports of sexual harassment, sexism and racism, she eventually walked away.

In a 2021 essay, Kosak describes pressure and coercion, non-consensual physical contact of a sexual nature, a feeling of precariousness and helplessness in a company “in the grip of sexism”. After leaving a message on the company’s ethics and compliance advice line, Kosak said he was contacted by HR “despite [the tip line’s] announced anonymity” and presented with “invasive questions regarding the nature of the harassment” at the company. SpaceX, she wrote, was “in such a state of disrepair and dysfunction that the only remedy, ultimately, was to leave.” When Kosak left the company last year, it was in the middle of “a frantic cadence of calls from HR, asking to speak – presumably to get me to sign a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for money.

In May, SpaceX settled a separate 2018 allegation of sexual harassment by Muskaccording to an Insider report.

In June, some SpaceX employees wrote an open letter to business leaders calling for a culture of accountability in reply to words and actions of the founder of the company and self-described technologyElon Musk.

The letter, first reported by The Verge, said in part: “SpaceX must establish safe pathways to report and maintain clear repercussions for any unacceptable behavior, whether it emanates from the CEO or an employee from day one. … It is essential to make it clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that its message does not reflect our work, our mission or our values.

In an internal email response, the company’s president and chief operating officer called the letter “excessive activism” by employees quickly fired by the company. The signatures of the authors have been entered by survey or by QR code, depending on the reporting of The edge.

In an email to HR Dive, Kosak thanked those SpaceX employees for their sacrifice. “The way it played out says a lot about the risks the team that wrote the open letter accepted because they saw the criticality of the culture change they were looking for,” she said. writing.

SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

watch and learn

JAccording to Jim Frawley, CEO of consulting firm Bellwether, SpaceX’s claims reveal a greater disconnect, or adversarial nature of business, between the C-suite and employees.. Had a well-functioning culture with open communication channels been in place, Frawley said, it’s unlikely these issues would have taken on such prominence.

And TC-suite words and actions cling to employee reputation and identityshe says. “TThis is a good lesson for all leaders, and their responsibility to understand – especially when it comes to someone like [famous] and public like Elon Musk. It’s more than just a stock price,” he said, explaining that the decisions, behaviors and speeches of the C suite have consequences that affect the lives of employees. “Everyone, down to the secretary and the janitor, has to answer questions about what the CEO is saying on Twitter.”

Frawley said he believes organizations have an absolute obligation to their employees, but “theality is that the C-suite is bound to operate in the best interest of the public, [and that] may or may not include its inhabitants. He called it “the fun conundrum of executive leadership.”

Count the fees

It’s important to appreciate the business impacts of such alleged incidents, Frawley explained. “At present, [nobody] at SpaceX, the work is done because they look at Google to see who else is writing about people who have been laid off,” but that’s not all. Musk’s industry competitors SpaceX and Tesla are also watching all this, as are the folks at Twitter, Frawley noted.

Poor publicity-informed choices can exact a heavy reputational tax from a person’s professional legacy, he said.

Forget the jargon

“Communication isn’t just about saying something,” Frawley said. “People strategy and culture requires real commitment and work that goes beyond the surface of mainstream discourse.”

Bellwether’s website promises to excise “the BS from the language of companies and coaches”. With more than 20 years in the corporate business, Frawley said such opacity was his biggest frustration — but a motivation for the work he does now, which includes coaching C-suite executives. on basic communication patterns.

“Management needs to recognize that soliciting employee feedback and making employees feel heard are two very different things. How many inquiries have we done and nothing changes?” He asked. “People are plugged into this now. They are way beyond skeptical. [of] new initiatives, even disdainful, because they do not believe in them.

Professional portrait of Jim Frawley

Jim Frawley, CEO and Founder of Bellwether

Cultivate psychological safety

Frawley said workers who feel they must turn to an open letter to gain recognition from business leaders are operating in an atmosphere of broken trust and desperation to be heard, and he pointed to the relationship between the innovation, voicing concerns and challenging authority by questioning norms.

Organizations and individuals can reset this divide, Frawley said. “It is the responsibility of employees to communicate appropriately and productively; and the responsibility of organizations to create a [culture] in which this can happen. You want people to be as open as possible because being able to express themselves is fundamental to psychological safety, and where people can contribute their full value, ultimately, [is] where innovation really happens.

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