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Tesla Faces String of Harassment Lawsuits

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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Tesla is often celebrated as a company keen on “changing the world,” but as the news headlines have screamed the past couple weeks, much of the world has not changed much in terms of respect being granted to everyone in the workplace. And this applies to Silicon Valley, which prides itself as being forward-thinking on climate change, diversity, center-left politics and of course, how technology can accelerate all of this progress.

Now Tesla has been caught up in what some critics have often described as the “bro" culture, which still permeates many of the office parks and office towers from San Jose to San Francisco. Uber, for example, long endured a headline-grabbing sexual harassment scandal, one of the many reasons why former CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down this summer. Similar accusations and investigations have also occurred at Google, Social Finance and Greylock Partners. News outlets from Bloomberg to CNBC have intimated that the problem is far worse that assumed.

At Tesla, the latest case involves an assembly line worker who claims he was harassed for being gay. Jorge Ferro filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit, saying he was taunted and was told “watch your back.” A scar on his wrist from a 16-year-old injury reportedly attracted the attention of someone at Tesla’s human resources, who then dismissed Ferro. He claims his firing was due to retaliation.

But when the Guardian, who first broke the story, contacted Tesla, the company first punted on the issue, claiming that Ferro and his supervisor were not employees, but contractors. “Tesla takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously,” the company responded. “There is no company on Earth with a better track record than Tesla, as they would have to have fewer than zero cases where an independent judge or jury has found a genuine case of discrimination.”

Tesla then lashed out at the publicity, pointing out that because of its global visibility and brand reputation, any media outlet or attorney seeking a higher profile would single out the company.

That may be true, but the problem for Tesla is that there have been other accusations of boorish behavior in recent years. Last week, three former African-American workers said in a lawsuit filed in a California state court they were subjected to racist slurs, both verbal and written. In addition, a former Tesla engineer claimed she was fired after she brought examples of gender discrimination to human resources.

Meanwhile, as Tesla is dealing with the fallout over the sudden dismissal of at least 400 employees, the automaker is enduring an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board over unfair labor practices.

From Tesla’s point of view, the electric vehicle upstart is a company being kicked when it is already down. The company currently is grappling with eye-rolls, told-you-so’s and exasperation over bottlenecks in its much-hyped Model 3 series. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, had said the company faced “production hell,” but would still crank out 1,500 of those cars last month, and 20,000 a month before January 1. But the Los Angeles Times reported that only 260 Model 3’s rolled out of its Fremont assembly plant by September 30, and Fortune piled on by noting the company is producing 84 percent fewer Model 3s than Musk promised. Hence Tesla’s recent mass firing has elicited its fair share of head-scratching.

Whether the discussion is over workplace culture or the company’s products, the problem Tesla and Musk have is that they have a history of taking the bait when accusations and criticism are flung at the company, which then makes an unseemly situation even worse. The latest such chapter was when the company earned scorn for its reaction to a Consumer Reportsrecent review of the Model 3, which stated the car’s reliability was “average.”

In that vein, in its response to the anti-LGBT lawsuit, the company could have just issued a dull, boring statement that it would not comment on litigation. Instead, the company comes across as shrill and defensive, and slams the Guardian as writing the story for click-bait. Even worse, Tesla’s spokesperson reminded the world that those former workers were at the heart of the dispute were not technically Tesla employees – and offer another reminder of the harsh reality contract workers confront day-to-day in Silicon Valley.

Accountability would help Tesla swat away some of the negative press about which the company is quick to complain. As one defendant told the Guardian’s Sam Levin about Tesla’s struggles with its workplace culture, “Don’t sweep it under the rug and send your PR out to do damage control. Step up to the plate.”

Image credit: Maurizo Pesce/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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