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Ex-employees sue Elon Musk and SpaceX, claiming illegal firings after they called out alleged gender bias and harassment


By Clare Duffy, CNN

New York (CNN) — SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk were sued on Wednesday by former employees who claim they were illegally fired for raising concerns about gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the rocket company.

The lawsuit, brought by eight employees who were fired in 2022, alleges that Musk wants to be “the leader to a brave new world of space travel, but runs his company in the dark ages — treating women as sexual objects to be evaluated on their bra size, bombarding the workplace with lewd sexual banter, and offering the reprise to those who challenge the ‘Animal House’ environment that if they don’t like it they can seek employment elsewhere,” according to the complaint, filed in state court in California.

The eight former employees were involved in writing a 2022 open letter criticizing Musk and urging SpaceX executives to make the firm’s culture more inclusive. The letter, which was signed by at least 400 other employees, asked SpaceX management to make it clear that Musk’s statements — particularly on Twitter — did not reflect the views or values of the company and asserted that SpaceX’s so-called “No A**hole” policy was unevenly enforced.

Following the letter’s release, the eight employees were fired. Wednesday’s complaint alleges that “Musk personally ordered the Plaintiff’s terminations.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. SpaceX does not typically respond to queries from news organizations. In response to the 2022 letter, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell previously said she would enforce SpaceX’s “zero tolerance” standards against employee harassment, but the The New York Times reported that she said the employees had been fired for making other staff feel “uncomfortable.”

SpaceX previously faced similar complaints filed to the National Labor Relations Board over the termination of employees involved in the letter. Those complaints claimed that the terminations amounted to employees being fired for engaging in “concerted protected activities.”

One former employee who filed an NLRB complaint and is a plaintiff in the Wednesday lawsuit, Tom Moline, previously told CNN that SpaceX management used an “‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment, harassment, and abuse reported by my colleagues, much of which was directly encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of the CEO.”

Earlier this year, SpaceX responded to a consolidated complaint from the NLRB with its own lawsuit, alleging that the structure of the NLRB itself is “unconstitutional.”

Wednesday’s complaint details the statements by Musk and the actions of other workers that the fired employees claim contributed to a hostile work environment and “pervasively sexist culture” at SpaceX.

It points to multiple crude posts by Musk on Twitter, now called X, such as one containing a plan “to create a Texas university similar to MIT which he would call ‘TITS’ and where ‘Ds [women’s bra size] would get degrees,’ accompanied by an altered photo rendering a rocket to appear to be a giant penis,” the complaint states.

“Things like that were widely shared on all internal chat channels and talked about in meetings and used as fodder in professional environments,” Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the plaintiffs, told CNN’s Laura Coates, adding that employees were “encouraged” to follow Musk on the social media platform.

As a result, it became “impossible to separate his personal nonsense from the actual day-to-day life of an actual working environment,” she said.

The complaint also references a post from Musk, shared the day after Business Insider published a report claiming Musk had sexually harassed a flight attendant, in which the billionaire said: “Finally, we get to use Elongate as scandal name. It’s kinda perfect,” along with a laughing emoji. (Musk has denied the harassment claims.)

“Musk’s conduct of interjecting this juvenile, grotesque sexual banter into the workplace had the wholly foreseeable and intentional result of encouraging other employees to engage in similar conduct,” Wednesday’s complaint states.

The former employees allege that engineers commonly applied “crude and demeaning names to products in an attempt at humor, often at the expense of women and LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, the name ‘Upskirt Camera’ was used for a camera on first stage of the Falcon rocket that views the bottom of the second stage,” according to the complaint.

In one instance, a SpaceX HR director responded to allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior at an internal event by saying: “I’ve never been sexually harassed; I must not be hot enough,” the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit adds that the former employees believe “SpaceX has not taken action to redress the harassment, hostile work-environment, and retaliation.”

The former employees are seeking unspecified monetary damages to account for “lost wages, earnings, and other employee benefits, emotional distress.”

This story has been updated with additional details and context.

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