The former Blue Origin rocket engine manager has blamed wrongful termination for safety whistleblowing

The former program manager of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines has filed a lawsuit against the company alleging whistleblower retaliation after she spoke out about safety issues.

The complaint was filed on Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. It includes a detailed account of program manager Craig Stoker’s efforts over seven months to raise his concerns about safety and a poor work environment at Blue Origin.

Allegedly, Stoker told the two VPs in May 2022 that former CEO Bob Smith’s behavior caused employees to “frequently violate safety procedures and processes to meet unreasonable deadlines.” Smith would “explode” when issues arose, creating a hostile work environment, the complaint said. Stoker sent a follow-up email to two VPs — Linda Cova, VP of the engine business unit, and Mary Plunkett, senior VP of human resources — that included a formal complaint against Smith.

“Myself, my leadership team and others across the company should not be constantly apologizing and making excuses to ourselves and our teams for the CEO’s bad behavior,” the email said. – said. “We spend significant time smoothing things over, building morale, repairing damage, stopping people from overreacting (…) The bad work environment (… ) creates a safety and quality risk for our people, products and customers.”

TechCrunch has reached out to Blue Origin for comment and will update the story if they respond.

When Stoker asked for a separate investigation into Smith’s conduct, Plunkett told him that it had been closed and that Smith had received “coaching.”

Stoker learned that a fellow employee had nearly suffocated while working under a machine nozzle just months after formally filing his complaint. He took the concerns to Michael Stevens, VP of mission safety and security; the complaint says Stoker was “left out.” In August, Stoker sent another email to management raising concerns that the 9-person engine team was working “24+” hour shifts to ensure the engine was delivered to customer United Launch. Alliance at the right time.

No doubt the company is feeling the pressure to make deliveries; Blue Origin’s BE-4 will power United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle, which is now expected to make its delayed Christmas debut. According to the complaint, Blue Origin’s contract with ULA requires the company to announce issues affecting rocket engine delivery one year in advance; Stoker wanted to tell ULA that the engines would likely be delayed.

But Smith allegedly instructed Stoker not to share these production and delivery issues with ULA.

Ultimately, Blue Origin HR concluded that Smith had not created a hostile work environment, nor violated any company policies, following an internal investigation. Stoker disputed this conclusion; the complaint says Stoker later learned that no one from the engine program had been interviewed as part of the investigation.

The lawsuit says that the HRs are reluctant to conduct the investigation because the complainant – Stoker – is a man: “As a man, they expect him to deal with his problems on his own and ‘mumble’ a little – left Stoker without recourse or resources to raise his concerns against the company’s most powerful officers.”

Stoker was terminated on October 7, seven months after he first raised safety concerns. The complaint is clear about who is behind this decision: “Smith led this termination due to Stoker’s complaints against him, his raising of safety/ethical/legal issues, and the fact that many of these reports aimed to restrict his production/shipping schedule.

Blue Origin announced that Bob Smith is stepping down as CEO in September, after a nearly six-year tenure. His tenure was marked by success – including growing the team from less than 1,000 people to more than 12,000 and landing several high-profile, high-value NASA contracts. But it was not without serious controversy, including allegations of a culture of sexism among senior executives.

Read the full complaint here.

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