The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blue Origin fired a senior executive, citing inappropriate behavior. Current and former employees say it’s part of the company’s toxic culture.

Working at the spaceflight company was a ‘chaotic and dispiriting experience,' one former employee said.

Jeff Bezos holds the aviation glasses that belonged to Amelia Earhart as he speaks during a July 20 news conference in Van Horn, Tex., about his spaceflight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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A longtime senior executive at Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin was terminated in 2019 after an outside law firm was brought in by the company to investigate employees’ allegations of his inappropriate behavior in the workplace, according to company officials and multiple people familiar with the matter.

That revelation comes as the Bezos space venture faces new allegations that it fosters a dangerous work environment, where sexist conduct is perpetrated or ignored by senior leadership.

In an essay released Thursday, Alexandra Abrams, the former head of Blue Origin employee communications, wrote that the spaceflight company’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.” The essay was posted to the whistleblowing site Lioness, which publishes stories of workplace misconduct and places them with media outlets. Abrams’s post cited 20 anonymous current and former employees.

Abrams writes that she represents a group of 21 former and current staffers, employed throughout the company, who participated in drafting the post on the condition of anonymity. In an interview with The Washington Post, one of the former staffers who participated in the blog post confirmed the allegations. The Post spoke with two other former employees, who were not part of the group that wrote the blog post, who said that Blue Origin’s leadership has created a toxic work environment and that they were grateful the blog was made public. They, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“I personally experienced quite a bit of trauma at Blue Origin,” Abrams said in an interview with The Post. “I was not the first and I was not the last.”

The Post was not immediately able to confirm all the identities of the 20 unnamed employees or corroborate the allegations in the letter.

In a statement, Blue Origin said that the company “has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.”

Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder, owns The Washington Post.

Three people with knowledge of the incident said Blue Origin hired the Perkins Coie law firm to investigate Walt McCleery, vice president of recruiting, and found that his behavior was inappropriate. Company officials, who declined to be named, confirmed in an interview on Thursday that it had hired the law firm and terminated McCleery, who had been at the company since 2004.

One person who was not a signatory to the blog post said in an interview that she once was in a meeting with McCleery and executives from an outside company when McCleery turned to the executives and said: “I apologize for [her] being emotional. It must be her time of the month.”

The comment “was tough for me,” she said. “It was embarrassing and awkward.” She said she had to quit her job there “because I couldn’t take it anymore.”

In a short interview, McCleery said he was unaware of the blog post or the allegations, which he denied. “Not true as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I don’t have any other comments.” When asked how he came to leave Blue Origin, he said, “It doesn’t matter how it came to an end. That’s private. That’s my information.”

The blog post doesn’t list any names, but describes several employees who allegedly treated female co-workers poorly. Abrams and the others wrote that one former executive “frequently treated women in a condescending and demeaning manner, calling them ‘baby girl,’ ‘baby doll’ or 'sweetheart’ and inquiring about their dating lives.”

The behavior was so well known, the post said, “that some women at the company took to warning new female hires to stay away from him, all while he was in charge of recruiting employees. It appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos — it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go.” Representatives from Blue Origin declined to comment on the matter.

Another former employee, who participated in writing the blog post, told The Post that working at Blue Origin was “a dispiriting and chaotic experience. That behavior was modeled and not held accountable. Even junior members started to mirror that. It’s such a mess.”

The allegations come at a pivotal moment for Blue Origin, as the company attempts to compete in the increasingly crowded race to privatize space travel. Its ambitions have grown since it was founded by Bezos in 2000, as a consortium of scientists and engineers dedicated to disrupting the spaceflight industry. Blue Origin has proceeded slowly toward this goal. The company marked its first human spaceflight this summer, more than 20 years after its founding, a milestone that lagged behind Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

The group behind the blog post said that several senior leaders at Blue Origin had acted inappropriately with women and that this behavior was known throughout the company.

“We had this growing community” of people who left Blue Origin, Abrams said. “We joked we’d create ‘I survived Blue Origin patches.’ ”

In an interview with CBS aired on Thursday morning, Abrams said she was fired from Blue Origin in 2019, after clashing with superiors about the culture at the company. As she was being terminated, she said her manager said she was being fired because Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith could no longer trust her.

In a statement Thursday to The Post, Blue Origin said, “Ms. Abrams was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.”

“I never received any warnings, verbal or written, from management regarding issues involving federal export control regulations,” Abrams wrote in a statement to The Post.

After she was ousted from the company, Abrams said she met with several current and former staffers, often at her home, and together they made plans to air their grievances against the company, culminating in the essay. The group members come from all the major departments at the company, Abrams said, and more than half were in or have technical roles.

The document also alleges that the high-pressure contest to advance spaceflight technology and edge out competing outfits has undermined safety concerns at the company. “At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon or Branson fly?’ " the group wrote.

“Competing with other billionaires — and ‘making progress for Jeff’ — seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule,” the group wrote. Blue Origin declined to comment on this matter.

Many of the current and former employees said they would not fly in a vehicle made by Blue Origin. “And no wonder — we have all seen how often teams are stretched beyond reasonable limits,” they said.

Bezos was one of four crew members on the company’s first human flight in July.

Blue Origin isn’t the first Bezos-founded company to be accused of fostering a toxic culture. After more than 550 Amazon employees signed on to a petition describing an “underlying culture of systemic discrimination, harassment, bullying and bias against women and underrepresented groups,” the company opened an investigation into the culture of its cloud-computing unit. On Tuesday, Amazon settled a long-running dispute with two former tech workers it fired after they criticized the company for its climate policies and warehouse safety record.

The allegations come as Blue Origin presses a legal challenge against the federal government to receive a slice of NASA’s lucrative lunar lander contract, in an attempt to force the agency to fund a second spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

The lawsuit, filed last month, came after Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision to award a $2.9 billion contract to develop the Human Landing System solely to Musk’s SpaceX.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.