Can You Get Fired for Criticizing Your Boss? Apparently Yes, if Your Boss Is Elon Musk

As SpaceX is accused of unlawfully firing employees, make sure you know your own rights.
Updated June 6, 2024
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SpaceX, the pioneering space exploration company led by Elon Musk, is currently facing allegations of unlawfully firing eight employees who openly criticized Musk's conduct. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed a complaint, asserting that SpaceX violated the workers' rights to collective action and advocacy for improved working conditions. This incident raises concerns about employee rights, prompting a closer look at the labor laws surrounding such actions and how individuals can protect themselves.

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SpaceX incident

The controversy centers around a letter circulated by employees in June 2022, expressing discontent with Musk's statements made on social media since 2020. The letter specifically addressed Musk's tweets, many of which were deemed sexually suggestive. 

Employees argued that these statements contradicted the company's policies on diversity and workplace conduct, urging SpaceX to denounce them. The NLRB complaint further alleges that SpaceX engaged in activities such as interrogating employees involved, disparaging them, and threatening termination for similar actions.

Labor laws behind this

Understanding the legal framework is crucial for individuals navigating their rights in the workplace. While the default in the United States is at-will employment, where employers and employees can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason, certain exceptions exist. 

Protections against firing employees for specific expressions, such as reporting discrimination or discussing salaries, are enshrined in federal, state, or local laws. In this SpaceX case, the NLRB asserts that the firings violated federal labor law, emphasizing the employees' right to collective action and advocacy.

The freedom of speech amendment relating to private-sector employment can be a bit of a gray area. While the First Amendment protects all employees' freedom to express their opinions, private employers are also free to employ who they wish. The gray area is in when it is exactly allowed and when it is not. There are clear rules that employees cannot be fired for discussing wages or working conditions, but criticism often falls under more subjective guidelines.

How to prevent this from happening to you

Navigating potential threats to your employment requires a proactive approach so that you don't find yourself needing to make extra money just to pay your rent. Employees can consider the following steps to protect their rights:

  • Understand employment contracts: Review individual contracts or collective bargaining agreements to identify specific conditions that must exist before disciplinary action or termination.
  • Know applicable legal rules: Be aware of legal rules that protect employees from retaliation in specific situations. Understanding the available enforcement mechanisms is crucial.
  • Assess market leverage: Consider your market leverage within the company. Are you challenging to replace, or would your coworkers support your cause? Collective action can be a powerful deterrent against unjust employment practices.
  • Speak out when appropriate: Don't let fear of employer retaliation silence you. If you witness discriminatory practices, unsafe conditions, or policy violations, understand your rights and speak up.
  • Go to human resources: Having something in writing documenting that you attempted to receive help or direction from the company’s internal resources can help your case in the long run. HR might not always be your friend, but they are responsible for documenting the incident and your attempt, which you can later use in court if necessary.

While there are no guarantees in any of this, it's important to know your rights and make sure you do what you can to protect yourself from any potential threat to your employment. If you don't agree with management in your company, you might also consider looking for a new job where you can be happier at work. 

Bottom line

The SpaceX incident serves as a stark reminder that employees should be aware of their rights and protections under the law. While the at-will default is a reality, legal exceptions and collective actions can empower workers. Understanding the intricacies of labor laws, employment contracts, and market dynamics can lower financial stress and is crucial for individuals seeking to prevent unfair treatment in the workplace. Remember, this could happen to anyone, but being informed about your rights is the first step in safeguarding your professional well-being.

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Author Details

Georgina Tzanetos Georgina Tzanetos is a former financial advisor who has been active in financial media for the past six years. She holds a master's in political economy from NYU, where she studied distressed labor markets.