Managers also appeared supportive. Mr. Edwards, the vice president, said in a meeting after the letter came out that two of its three proposals were “great ideas,” according to minutes of the meeting shared internally and seen by The Times. He said a third idea — that SpaceX separate itself from Mr. Musk’s “personal brand” — was “more tricky.”
But at the highest levels of the company the response soon became antagonistic, employees said. Within hours, Ms. Shotwell sent Mr. Moline and Ms. Holland-Thielen an email passing along comments from an unnamed co-worker who expressed disagreement with the letter and called it distracting. The Information previously reported on the email.
“Please stop flooding employee communication channels immediately,” Ms. Shotwell wrote in her email, on which she copied senior company officials. She added: “I will consider your ignoring my email to be insubordination. Instead, please focus on your job.”
The following morning, news outlets reported on the open letter. By that afternoon, Mr. Moline, Ms. Holland-Thielen and three other employees were separately contacted by human resources and told that they were being fired. An official cited their role in creating and distributing the letter, four of the employees said.
Ms. Shotwell joined those conversations remotely and emphasized that the workers had wasted vast amounts of company time.
The employees were stunned. “We were really trying to make this as palatable as possible to reasonable minds at SpaceX,” Ms. Holland-Thielen said. One of the employees’ lawyers, Anne Shaver of Lieff Cabraser, said the company had “viciously retaliated” against them.
Ms. Shotwell did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Wilma Liebman, who was a chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Barack Obama, said a letter seeking clarification of a company’s sexual harassment policies was generally protected by federal labor law. She said the company could argue that the letter’s writers sought to criticize Mr. Musk, activity that isn’t necessarily protected, rather than to improve their workplace. But she said the labor board would probably disagree because the posts from Mr. Musk that employees criticized could be seen as creating a hostile work environment.