A group of senior employees at OpenAI complained to the company’s former board of directors that CEO Sam Altman was “psychologically abusive” — and the allegations contributed to the shocking decision to fire him, according to a report Friday.
Altman, one of most recognizable figures in Silicon Valley and a leader of the artificial intelligence movement, was pushed out Nov. 17 — only to return days later as CEO following a mass revolt by OpenAI employees and investors.
Prior to the firing, senior staffers — who were not individually named but included company leaders and the heads of large teams — alleged that Altman was “creating pockets of chaos and delays” at the company behind ChatGPT through his antics, according to the Washington Post.
Altman also was accused of “pitting employees against each other in unhealthy ways,” the outlet reported, citing two people with knowledge of the board’s thinking.
The allegations by key staff members, which hadn’t been reported before, purportedly fueled concerns among OpenAI’s board that Altman had become unmanageable.
As a result of the claims, the board enacted a review of Altman’s behavior to assess concerns that toxic management could cause key employees to leave the company, the Washington Post reported.
Some OpenAI employees reportedly told the board that they “feared retaliation from Altman.”
In one case, Altman had allegedly become “hostile” after an employee “shared critical feedback” with him.
Aside from the staff complaints, the sources said OpenAI’s board felt that Altman lied to them as part of an effort to oust Helen Toner, a board member and academic focused on AI safety.
Altman reportedly soured on Toner after she contributed to a paper that criticized OpenAI for pushing out ChatGPT, arguing the move accelerated the AI race at the expense of safety.
The details echoed an earlier report by the Wall Street Journal, which said board members felt Altman had tried to mislead one of them into thinking that another supported his push to remove Toner as a director.
The reports provided fresh details about the circumstances that led to OpenAI board’s shocking decision to remove Altman.
At the time, the board said its decision was based on a loss of confidence in Altman because he was “not consistently candid” in his communications.
Altman returned as CEO after days of frantic negotiations led by Microsoft and other key investors.
“We believe Sam is the best leader for OpenAI,” company spokesperson Hannah Wong said in a statement. “The senior leadership team was unanimous in asking for Sam’s return as CEO and for the board’s resignation, actions backed by an open letter signed by over 95% of our employees.”
Toner, who finally broke her silence on events leading to Altman’s ouster, told the Journal that an OpenAI attorney had warned that she and other board members who participated in the coup could be in violation of their fiduciary duties to investors — a move she felt constituted an “intimidation tactic.”
Toner and all but one of OpenAI’s board members resigned as part of those negotiations.
The company’s new board so far consists of three members, including the sole holdover, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo; ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and former Twitter chair Bret Taylor.
The board will eventually consist of nine members. Microsoft received a non-voting observer seat.
Another of the departed board members was OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who voted to oust Altman but later claimed he regretted participating in the coup.
In a bizarre twist, Sutskever hinted earlier this week at internal discord at OpenAI in a now-deleted tweet in which he discussed the lessons he had learned at the company.
It’s still unclear if Sutskever will return to work at the company.
“One such lesson is that the phrase ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’ applies more often than it has any right to,” Sutskever wrote.
Despite that tweet, Sutskever’s lawyer, Alex Weingarten, told the Washington Post that his client supports Altman.
“There have been a lot of wild and inaccurate reports about what happened with the Board but the bottom line is that Ilya has very publicly stated that Sam is the right person to lead OpenAI and he is thrilled that he is back at the helm,” Weingarten said in a statement.