This fall, a small number of senior leaders approached the board of OpenAI with concerns about chief executive Sam Altman.
Altman - a revered mentor, prodigious start-up investor and avatar of the AI revolution - had been psychologically abusive, the employees alleged, creating pockets of chaos and delays at the artificial-intelligence start-up, according to two people familiar with the board's thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. The company leaders, a group that included key figures and people who manage large teams, mentioned Altman's allegedly pitting employees against each other in unhealthy ways, the people said.
Although the board members didn't use the language of abuse to describe Altman's behavior, these complaints echoed some of their interactions with Altman over the years, and they had already been debating the board's ability to hold the CEO accountable. Several board members thought Altman had lied to them, for example, as part of a campaign to remove board member Helen Toner after she published a paper criticizing OpenAI, the people said.
The new complaints triggered a review of Altman's conduct during which the board weighed the devotion Altman had cultivated among factions of the company against the risk that OpenAI could lose key leaders who found interacting with him highly toxic. They also considered reports from several employees who said they feared retaliation from Altman: One told the board that Altman was hostile after the employee shared critical feedback with the CEO and that he undermined the employee on that person's team, the people said.
"It is clear that there were real misunderstandings between me and members of the board," Altman wrote on X. "For my part, it is incredibly important to learn from this experience and apply those learnings as we move forward as a company."
The complaints about Altman's alleged behavior, which have not previously been reported, were a major factor in the board's abrupt decision to fire Altman on Nov. 17, according to the people. Initially cast as a clash over the safe development of artificial intelligence, Altman's firing was at least partially motivated by the sense that his behavior would make it impossible for the board to oversee the CEO.
Altman was reinstated as CEO five days later, after employees released a letter signed by a large percentage of OpenAI's 800-person staff, including most senior managers, and threatening mass resignations.
"We believe Sam is the best leader for OpenAI," said company spokesperson Hannah Wong. "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."
Anna Makanju, OpenAI's vice president of global affairs, echoed the sentiment in a statement shared by the company: "In my experience working closely with Sam, he brings passion to the work and to the mission. While he has strong opinions, he values my team's counsel, listens to diverse perspectives, and consistently encourages open and honest discussions."
Now back at the helm of OpenAI, Altman may find that the company is less united than the waves of heart emojis that greeted his return on social media might suggest.
Some employees said Altman's camp began undermining the board's decision shortly after he was removed as CEO, the people said. Within hours, messages dismissed the board as illegitimate and decried Altman's firing as a coup by OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, according to the people.
On social media, in news reports and on the anonymous app Blind, which requires members to sign up with a work email address to post, people identified as current OpenAI employees also described facing intense peer pressure to sign the mass-resignation letter.
Some OpenAI employees have rejected the idea that there was any coercion to sign the letter. "Half the company had signed between the hours of 2 and 3am," a member of OpenAI's technical staff, who tweets under the pseudonym roon, posted on X. "That's not something that can be accomplished by peer pressure."
Joanne Jang, who works in products at OpenAI, tweeted that no influence had been at play. "The google doc broke so people texted each other at 2-2:30 am begging people with write access to type their name."
For longtime employees, there was added incentive to sign: Altman's departure jeopardized an investment deal that would allow them to sell their stock back to OpenAI, cashing out equity without waiting for the company to go public. The deal - led by Joshua Kushner's Thrive Capital - values the company at almost $90 billion, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, more than triple its $28 billion valuation in April, and it could have been threatened by tanking value triggered by the CEO's departure.
Members of the board expected employees to be upset about Altman's firing, but they were taken aback when OpenAI's management team appeared united in their support for bringing him back, said the people, as well as a third person with knowledge of the board's proceedings, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive company matters.
As the company seeks to rebuild the board and smooth things over with Microsoft, its key partner, it has committed to launching an internal investigation into the debacle, which broke into public view on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
In a post on the company blog, the board wrote that Altman had been removed as CEO after a review found that he had not been "consistently candid in his communications." The Washington Post previously reported that the board's vote was triggered by a pattern of manipulation and rooted in Altman's attempts to avoid checks on his power at OpenAI.
Altman himself helped pioneer OpenAI's unique board structure, according to a person familiar with the board proceedings at the time. The group has had as many as nine members and is supposed to contain a majority of members with no financial stake in OpenAI. At the time of Altman's firing, it was down to six members: three employees (president and co-founder Greg Brockman, Altman, and Sutskever) and three independent directors (Toner, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo).
But the lack of concrete details around the board's motivations allowed room for speculation and spin to take hold. Some talk focused on Sutskever, who in July was named co-lead of a new AI safety team called "Superalignment," whose goal is to make sure advanced AI systems follow human intent. His public comments about the potential dangers of "artificial general intelligence" set the stage for a narrative about the risks of commercial interests.
The pressure on Sutskever to reverse his vote was particularly intense. Less than three days later, he wrote on X that "I deeply regret" participating in the board's decision. He also added his name to the employee resignation letter and vowed to reunite the company.
Altman seemed to approve, quoting Sutskever's message on X along with a trio of red heart emojis.
Sutskever's future at OpenAI is now uncertain. "We hope to continue our working relationship and are discussing how [Sutskever] can continue his work at OpenAI," Altman wrote in a staff-wide email after returning as CEO.
"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," Sutskever's lawyer, Alex Weingarten, chair of the litigation practice at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, wrote in a statement.
On Wednesday morning, Sutskever shared a cryptic post on X about learning many lessons in the past month. "One such lesson is that the phrase 'the beatings will continue until morale improves' applies more often than it has any right to," he wrote. The tweet was quickly deleted.