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SpaceX’s success is a motivation for its rival Blue Origin to move forward and achieve big results. Unfortunately, the fuel for these movements is the working energy of its employees. Some of the company’s managers claim that it is not the maximum they can squeeze out of their workers, there are still weekends when they can work. The grueling working strategies were summed up in a 2018 memo compiled by Blue Origin executives, a copy of which was viewed by The Verge.

Alarming Essay

Some of the crucial moments from this memo were quoted in an alarming Lioness essay published on Thursday, which alleged a sexist and unsafe work culture at Blue Origin, founded by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The author of the essay is Alexandra Abrams, the former head of employee communications at Blue Origin, along with 20 present and past employees at the company. She wrote about former executives who spoke rudely towards women. Also, she mentioned one who was fired for groping a female employee. In the essay, you’ll also find parts about the corporate culture that’s based on a fear of losing jobs.

“In our experience, 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,” Abrams wrote.

Abrams also wrote about the impatience of some of the company executives as they couldn’t stand flexible schedules. In their opinion employees can squeeze even more work in that time. She referred to the 2018 memo as an example demonstrating Blue Origin tries to copy SpaceX’s aggressive strategy. Executives created the memo after attending a briefing with Avascent, a strategy, and management consultant. In the document, they summarized some of their biggest takeaways from the meeting, while highlighting some of the labor concepts that SpaceX employs.

“Very long hours are expected,” the memo says of SpaceX’s culture. “People are expected to work on vacations or not take them. Burnout is part of their labor strategy. It’s one reason they [sic] workforce tends to be on the younger side. They hired new grads eager to learn and performance [sic] and purposely burn them out.”

Sometime later a Blue Origin executive offered to copy SpaceX’s business management approach. “We need to get more out of our employees,” Gregory “Ray J” Johnson, a former astronaut and former Blue Origin manager, wrote. “The lack of effort over weekends to meet deadlines is not the culture I am accustomed to in an operations outfit. I realize that development is somewhat different but regardless SpaceX expects and gets more out of their employees. It is a privilege to be a part of history. We are not necessarily slacking by any means but we may be less focused.” Elsewhere in the memo, it states that “Blue is a ghost town on weekends.”

The Verge tried to get comments from Blue Origin, but without a result. But after the release of the essay the company made a comment: “Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the company said. “We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct. We stand by our safety record and believe that New Shepard is the safest space vehicle ever designed or built.”

The Blue Origin memo seems to claim that SpaceX succeeds by “selling inspiration and guiding vision to employees,” thanks to strong branding and an active social media presence. And since these workers are hired at the beginning of their careers, they are “driven to work long hours,” with peer pressure a driving factor behind their schedules. As a result, SpaceX achieves “low cost relative to work output” and “high attrition with early burnout.”“They have a workforce aligned to accomplish the work for the least cost: utilization of early career engineers, who work 80 hours for below market compensation means they can produce drawings at a fast and cost effective pace,” Erik Sallee, a former corporate comptroller at Blue Origin, wrote.

“Bottom 10 percent”

There is another strategy described in the memo. SpaceX in practice uses “bottom 10 percent” which means the company puts these 10 percent of employees who are not productive on performance improvement plans or PIP. Amazon also uses the same tactics. The memo claims that SpaceX fires 10 percent of employees each year, “ensuring they have a clear path to a continually improving workforce,” Sallee wrote. In January 2019, SpaceX did announce that it was laying off 10 percent of its employees that year. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Jason Davis, a vice president of enterprise technology at Blue Origin responded to this strategy saying that he didn’t necessarily want to put the bottom 10 percent of employees on automatic PIPs, but that “as an organization we need to be more forward/direct about our employee performance overall.” He also argued that he thinks “Blue is kind of lazy compared to SpaceX.” Another executive agreed that Blue needs to better communicate an expectation that employees work more than 40 hours a week. “I’m not advocating 80 hours a week, but we won’t get [New] Shepard to [first human flight] [New] Glenn to orbit or Engines delivered to ULA on 40 per week.”

Abrams mentioned that the core reason for writing the essay was her concerns over Blue Origin’s vehicle saftyness. Structural problems within the company and employees’ burnout can affect the quality of produced vehicles.

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