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Engineers sue Elon Musk and SpaceX, saying the company mirrored his juvenile, crude X posts

Elon Musk in a black tuxedo against a dark backdrop.
Elon Musk, shown at a Hollywood event in April, is the subject of a lawsuit that spotlights crude social media posts and alleges retaliatory firings.
(Jordan Strauss / Invision / Associated Press)
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SpaceX and its billionaire owner, Elon Musk, are being sued by eight former employees who allege they were fired after asking the company to address a toxic work culture they say is rife with sexual harassment and discrimination.

The former employees say Musk encouraged an inappropriate work environment in the spacecraft company with his social media posts, where he often announced important company news including launch dates and accomplishments, but mixed in memes and jokes filled with sexual innuendo.

In the complaint, the former SpaceX engineers say the troubling posts weren’t just private rantings from its billionaire CEO. SpaceX told employees to consider Musk’s posts on X as official statements and news from the company.

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“There was no separation on [Elon] Musk’s statements and the company’s statements,” said Anne Shaver, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “When employees raised concerns, they were told: ‘We can’t do anything. SpaceX is Elon, and Elon is SpaceX.’”

A representative for SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A second shareholder advisory firm has come out against reinstating a pay package for Tesla CEO Elon Musk that was voided this year by a Delaware judge.

May 31, 2024

Musk, who owns SpaceX and X, is a prolific user of the social media site formerly known as Twitter. He is known for posts that are questionable at times, attacking politicians, personal opponents and people he disagrees with.

In one post highlighted in the complaint, Musk posted to Chad Hurley, the former CEO of YouTube, “if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”

In another instance, he posted a picture of Bill Gates with a pregnant-looking stomach with the message, “in case u need to lose a boner fast.” In a response to SpaceX competitors, he once posted that they “[c]an’t get it up (to orbit) lol.”

In one post, he said he was considering making a university in Texas similar to MIT and proposed calling it “TITS.”

The online behavior, the lawsuit alleges, seeped into day-to-day work at SpaceX.

“Employees could not escape seeing them or hearing about them,” states the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. “Musk’s utterances were quickly circulated by email, Teams channels and/or word of mouth and widely discussed.”

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The lawsuit claims SpaceX’s handbook instructs employees to look at Musk’s social media feed on X as “a source of approved company news” and encourages employees to share it publicly.

Musk’s activity on social media also had another consequence, the lawsuit states: “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.”

At SpaceX’s Hawthorne offices, the suit claims, company meetings and employees mimicked Musk’s humor.

At meetings, the lawsuit alleges, senior engineers called mechanical parts “chodes” and “schlongs.” A camera that was placed on the bottom of a second-stage Falcon rocket was referred to as the “Upskirt Camera,” and a structure used by astronauts to transfer from SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station was called the “Fun Tunnel,” a euphemism for anal sex.

Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the former employees suing SpaceX, alleged that a principal engineer in December 2021 saw a graph on her computer that pointed downward. The engineer made a reference to a penis and asked her, “How can we get it up, up, up?”

Musk, who has been listed by Forbes as one of the wealthiest people on the planet, has long faced allegations of turbulent leadership, including claims of retaliation against those who speak out against him.

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When he bought Twitter in 2022, Musk fired a large number of the social media platform’s employees, including those who had criticized him, the New York Times reported.

The Tesla and SpaceX leader’s beef with OpenAI flared up again after Apple unveiled its plans to use ChatGPT to support some of its AI features. Apple said privacy is a key component of its entry into the space.

June 12, 2024

He’s also faced allegations of sexual harassment.

Business Insider reported in 2022 that a SpaceX flight attendant was paid $250,000 to settle a sexual misconduct claim, alleging Musk exposed himself to her and offered to buy her a horse in exchange for an erotic massage.

On Tuesday, the day the lawsuit was filed, the Wall Street Journal reported that Musk had a sexual relationship with a SpaceX intern more than 20 years his junior.

The eight employees — four women and four men — were fired in 2022 at the direction of Musk, the complaint alleges, after they drafted an internal letter asking SpaceX executives to denounce Musk’s social media posts.

The letter mentioned the allegations against Musk, as well as troubling social media posts that it stated included “subtle sexual harassment” and “bullying.” It also asked executives to “condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior.”

According to the complaint, Holland-Thielen and Tom Moline were told by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell to “stop flooding employees [sic] communications channels” after they shared the letter on June 15, 2022.

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The same day, the lawsuit alleges, Musk asked an HR representative to fly from Texas to Hawthorne, and then ordered officials to fire Holland-Thielen and Moline.

SpaceX continued to investigate the authors of the letter and those involved in drafting the document, the lawsuit states, and fired more employees as a result.

“Musk thinks he’s above the law,” said Laurie Burgess, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “Our eight brave clients stood up to him and were fired for doing so. We look forward to holding Musk accountable for his actions at trial.”

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