Times Watchdog | Long before Electroimpact President Peter Zieve sent postcards to Mukilteo residents about a planned mosque, he was drawing strong reactions from some of his 800 employees with messages about “terrorist savages,” sterilization, procreation and more.
“Why have I received this?”
Electroimpact engineer Jessica Loveridge asked the question, replying to a thread circulated last year on a company email group known as “jokes.” The thread wasn’t funny, as so many circulated among the group weren’t.
It concerned terrorism and religion, a perennial topic among group members. Electroimpact founder and President Peter Zieve shared a link to a conservative blog carrying the rumor — never backed by evidence — that Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who committed suicide last year by crashing a Germanwings plane, killing everyone onboard, was a Muslim convert.
Loveridge didn’t comment on anything in the thread. Instead, she noted that she had not opted into the jokes list, and didn’t want to be on it.
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“Time for you to leave EI,” Zieve replied, using shorthand for the company name, one that carries weight in the aerospace industry. Mukilteo-based Electroimpact is a major supplier to Boeing and Airbus, hailed for its large, cutting-edge machines used to build planes and its unusual degree of worker autonomy.
But interviews with six current and former employees, as well as numerous internal emails obtained by The Seattle Times, portray another side of the company culture, one shaped by Zieve’s forceful personality and controversial views.
A hint of those views emerged publicly this month, when it became known that Zieve sent anonymous postcards to Mukilteo residents, informing them of plans to build a mosque in the city. The revelation prompted accusations of Islamophobia, including by his sister, Wendy Zieve. The group planning the mosque has since called for a boycott of Electroimpact.
Yet the postcards, written in neutral language, were uncharacteristically subtle. Zieve has been bluntly sharing his views for a while with his roughly 800 employees, and losing some because of it.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t like me, what can I say?” Zieve said, reached in Switzerland last week on vacation. He added that like his preferred presidential candidate, Donald Trump, he is not a “robot,” and said what he thought.
He brought up the annual Christmas celebration at the 30-year-old company. “We turn our big flagpole into a huge Christmas tree and make a big Nativity scene at least 100 yards long. It’s massive and we’re really proud of it.”
Boeing wouldn’t do that, he noted. “They’re much more politically correct. I do it my way.”
He added he thought of his employees as family. As for those who are unhappy, “There are plenty of other companies to work for.”
Loveridge, who worked at Electroimpact’s U.K. division, was one who went elsewhere. She said her managers successfully fought for her job after Zieve’s “time for you to leave” email and a subsequent phone call, telling her she should go. But she felt unwelcome.
Zieve said he didn’t remember the incident. But if it happened, he said, “I believe I would have cooled off and called immediately to apologize.” Loveridge said she recalls no apology.
Cooper Van Vranken was another casualty of the culture. “EI has been a fantastic place to start my engineer career,” he wrote in an email sent to all employees on his last day of work in May of last year. He praised the “remarkable” talent at the company and lack of bureaucracy that made it an “engineer’s playground.”
Yet, he said, addressing Zieve, “your aggressively promoted personal ethical and political views have made EI a place that is not fun for me to work at. I have issues with many of your policies including your blatantly sexist and racist hiring practices … However, I am going to focus in on your anti-Muslim sentiment.”
“Literally, hundreds of people emailed me to say, ‘thanks for saying that,’” Van Vranken recalled.
Babies and bonuses
By that time, Zieve had launched a “mosque watch group” of employees and local residents. Concerned about plans to build a mosque in Mukilteo, they met periodically on the company’s campus, according to employees and emails from Zieve publicizing the meetings.
In other emails, many sent to the “jokes” group, Zieve urged employees to stay away from planes piloted by Muslims, sent around graphic images of terrorism and declared himself a “survivalist to save our incredible way of life.”
He elaborated to the group on his philosophy in a February 2015 email on people who sterilize themselves. “When they choose not to repopulate and allow our wonderful country to be backfilled with rubbish from the desperate and criminal populations of the Third World I find that to be disgusting and I find those persons to make those decisions to be repulsive and I don’t like them around me.”
Some employees made similarly provocative comments. One, in an email thread related to terrorism, expressed the need “to quit fighting these mongrels ‘ethically.’ ”
Another questioned the notion of free education. “So we do not want to waste the limited resources we have by trying to train people who will fail,” he wrote.
A number of these types of threads arose from the regular announcements Zieve sent out announcing employee marriages or births.
When employees marry or give birth, he shares the news with effusive emails.
“One more for the good guys!” Zieve wrote in a companywide email last fall after an employee had a baby girl. “I note that 381,000 terrorist savages have gotten into Europe this year,” he added in an apparent reference to refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, “and if we don’t make more babies the light will go out on civilization.”
Zieve follows up his congratulations, on both marriages and births, with $1,000 bonuses. Employees also receive extra profit-sharing income for each child. Two people who worked at the company said the extra income has sometimes run as high as $10,000 per child in a six-month period, although Zieve maintained it was “not anywhere near that much.”
“It’s money that comes from my heart,” he added in the interview last week. He gave money to his employees as “gifts,” he said, money other business owners would use to buy houses and fancy cars.
He gave those with families more, he said, “because they have extra expenses.”
Shannon McCormack, a University of Washington law professor who writes about the tax burden on working parents, agrees on the expenses point, noting the huge cost of child care. “An employer attempting in some way to defray those costs is very interesting to me,” she said.
But Lea Vaughn, a UW professor specializing in employment law, said upon hearing of Electroimpact’s pay policies that she was “completely shocked … It’s like, what is this employer trying to get people to do?”
Because of state law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of marital status, she added, “I think the marriage bonus is completely out of the question.”
“That is definitely a problem,” agreed state Human Rights Commission policy analyst Laura Lindstrand, although she allowed that she’d have to look into whether the bonuses really were a gift, which might be fine, or simply extra income.
State law, she noted, does not prohibit job discrimination on the basis of family status. Nevertheless, she said, if a family-bonus policy is linked to a philosophy rooted in dislike of certain people, it could “open up a can of worms” that might call for looking at the company’s hiring practices.
Of Electroimpact’s 629 U.S. employees, most of them mechanical and electrical engineers, 3 percent are women, according to company figures. Blacks, Asians and Hispanics together account for 6 percent. “It’s a real challenge to build a diverse workforce in aerospace and STEM fields,” said company chief of staff Ben Hempstead in an email.
At UW’s College of Engineering, women made up 9 percent of students who last year earned undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering. Asian Americans made up 25 percent of the class.
Zieve wasn’t willing to talk at length about his views. He hung up twice during sequential interviews, and did not reply to a request for comment about specific workplace emails The Seattle Times had obtained.
But before hanging up the second time, he said he regretted one thing related to the postcard about the planned mosque. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with it but it shouldn’t have been anonymous,” he said. For that, he said, he planned to apologize to Mohammed Riaz Khan, the head of the group intending to build the mosque.
He added that he continues to worry the mosque will bring “radicalized people.”
“The owner of the company has his personal opinions and those are separate from the mission of the company,” stressed Hempstead, who added that Zieve does not require employees to take actions based on his opinions.
They could be distracting, though, said Brandon O’Toole, an engineer who started at the company in the summer of 2014. Every time an inflammatory email came from Zieve, he said, he got angry and found it difficult to focus on work.
A year later, he, too, sent an email explaining why he was leaving. “You can count me in as one more employee that was alienated by Peter’s intolerance.”