Tesla, the well known manufacturer of the popular Tesla Model S, Model X and Model 3 electric cars, is now under scrutiny in the wake of a class-action lawsuit claiming that several of the African American employees at the company’s main auto manufacturing facility in Fremont have been the victims of racial discrimination and harassment. Although Tesla has already responded to these claims with a lengthy denial of wrongdoing on the company’s blog, this type of response is common for large companies and more often than not is not a reliable way to gauge the actual experiences of the employees. While a denial of wrongdoing may be in the best interest of the company as a whole, the increasing number of allegations claiming that employees are facing discrimination and harassment at the Fremont plant are beginning to add up to a broader cause for concern. 

The class action suit

The class-action suit, which was filed by former Tesla employee Marcus Vaughn, claims that the company failed to respond to the complaints that Vaughn filed with their human resources department after experiencing repeated racial harassment from some of his managers and coworkers during his period of employment with the company, which lasted from April to October 2017. Vaughn claims that he was subsequently fired by the company in October 2017 and told that his termination was the result of “not having a positive attitude”. 

Tesla responds to the claim

Tesla disputes this in their response to Vaughn’s allegations, claiming that Vaughn was actually under the employ of a temp agency and that he left Tesla after the six-month contract with that agency was completed. They go on to address his accusations that the company didn’t respond to his complaints of racial harassment, claiming that there was an investigation of the behavior that Vaughn described and that three other employees who were involved were fired by Tesla in response to their findings. 

Racial harassment lawsuits preceding the class action

Vaughn’s lawsuit is not the first but the third over the course of a year to be filed by African American former employees who claim that the company failed to respond appropriately to their complaints of racial harassment at the Fremont plant. Each of these suits makes specific mention of racial harassment, which included the repeated use of racial slurs, and in one case also included lewd behavior. 

The controversial email

Tesla remains adamant that the incidents in question were handled both promptly and fairly, although a company-wide email to employees written by Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, in May 2017 addressing some of these issues has become a point of controversy.

Musk wrote, “Part of not being a huge jerk is considering how someone might feel who is part of a historically less represented group. Sometimes these things happen unintentionally, in which case you should apologize. In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.”

This statement was interpreted by many as being too dismissive of the complaints about racial harassment and discrimination and was included in the class action lawsuit filed by Vaughn. This email was also addressed on Tesla’s blog, with an explanation that it had been misinterpreted out of context and that it was really urging forgiveness for those who make a mistake and then offer a sincere apology. 

While the outcome of these lawsuits may be impossible to speculate on at this point, they still serve as a reminder that employees have rights – and the legal options to protect those rights – even within a company that is large and influential. If you are the employee of a large company and have experienced similar issues but feel intimidated or are unsure of the steps ahead, we invite you to call our office today to schedul