Elon Musk’s Juneteenth Problem at SpaceX and Tesla

A pronouncement of a new company policy on Twitter, light on context and apparently without forewarning, is a classic Musk play. But the stakes are higher now. Musk sits at the top of companies that are paving the future of technology and space exploration—two industries with a troublesome track record on diversity. That position provides him with the power to enact some change. Musk has already disappointed some of his most ardent fans by pushing for Tesla to reopen last month despite local shutdown orders amid the coronavirus, which is disproportionately killing black and brown Americans. (Several cases have been reported at Tesla’s assembly plant in Fremont, California.) This week, in the span of two tweets, he fumbled an opportunity on another national concern, once again putting his companies in a difficult position.

The apparent hollowness of Musk’s gesture was only magnified when several news outlets reported that some Tesla employees were already at work when they received the news about the policy. According to BuzzFeed, Tesla’s head of human resources had notified staff at about 8 a.m. on the West Coast, before Musk tweeted, that the company “fully supports Juneteenth for any U.S. employee that wants to take the day off to celebrate,” and that, for those who chose to take off, the day would be recorded as “an unpaid PTO”—an impressive corporate twisting of words.

The public reaction to the haphazard rollout seemed to resonate with senior leadership, at least at SpaceX. About two hours after Musk’s follow-up tweet, Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s chief operating officer, sent a memo to staff announcing that next year, Juneteenth would be “an official company holiday,” CNBC reported. The language suggests, but does not explicitly say, that Juneteenth will be added to SpaceX’s calendar of paid holidays. (SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on this story; neither did Tesla.)

In the email, Shotwell said that she had recently met with black employees to discuss their experiences at SpaceX. “Microaggressions all the way to explicit race-based name calling and other intolerable aggressive behaviors occur here and this is completely not OK,” she wrote. She announced several new initiatives, including employee networks for black and Latino staff and mandatory bias training for all employees. (Such training, she said, was instituted for “people leaders” last year.) Employees, she added, could still observe Juneteenth for the few hours left in the workday, as paid or unpaid time off.

Shotwell’s apparent rush to address the situation felt to some like a reaction to the public criticism of Musk’s walked-back declaration, an attempt to turn a flimsy effort into something more substantive. “It’s like when Trump tweets something and people have to scramble to make a policy out of it,” a former SpaceX engineer who left the company in 2018, and who asked not to be named to avoid professional repercussions, told me.