'Painful abuse' | Tesla cause HR furore after staff accuse function of 'rampant' racism

Tesla cause HR furore after staff accuse function of 'rampant' racism

HR bosses at Tesla have been accused of ignoring complaints of racism from employees, and instead punishing the staff who raise the allegations, reports have said.

The Daily Beast and the LA Times, among multiple publications, have reported that several former staff at the electric car making giant were subjected to racial abuse, only to see no action when the matters were escalated to human resources.

J. Bernard Alexander, a lawyer representing some of the complainants as part of a lawsuit filed in California, told the Daily Beast that “people complain to human resources and instead of human resources addressing it, they punish the people that complain. They basically don’t want to hear about it and don’t want to take responsibility for it.”

Alexander also issued a scathing critique of Tesla boss Elon Musk, telling the Daily Beast: “The company, as I see it, is a reflection of its owner Elon Musk. He’s got the ability, if he cared about it, to fix it. It’s just not important to him.

“A person who is capable of creating the cars he creates, who is personally able to go into space, if he wanted to fix it, he’d turn his attention to it and it would be fixed.”

Alexander said Tesla and Musk’s response (or lack of) to the alleged widespread discrimination was “facilitating the conduct", adding that the issue was "rampant" within the company.

One former employee who said Tesla ignored her complaints was Kaylen Barker, according to the lawsuit.

Barker told the Daily Beast that “being a Black worker at a Tesla’s renowned California factory, is to be forced to step back in time and suffer painful abuses reminiscent of the Jim Crow Era.”

According to the publication, the 25-year-old Black and gay worker claimd a white co-worker called her the N-word and assaulted her with a hot grinding tool. But when Barker complained to HR, Tesla allegedly retaliated by withholding her wages.

The Daily Beast also reported that, on another occasion, 29-year-old Shanel Dickson was racially abused by a white male supervisor, adding that a colleague made fun of her dreadlocks and “asked to touch her hair”.

When these complaints were taken to HR, the firm responded by taking her off the team to “put her on trash duty and she still had to see the guy everyday,” according to Corey Bennett, Dickson’s lawyer, who added: “That part didn’t sit right. It exemplified some sort of systemic problem".

Tesla had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication, said the LA Times.

Racism claims stack up at Tesla

These allegations are the latest scandal to have rocked Tesla in recent months. In October 2021, the company was ordered to pay more than £100million for failing to stop a black former worker from being racially abused, the BBC reported.

The electric car maker was told to pay the eye-watering sum, equivalent to around $137m, to Owen Diaz, who worked as a lift operator at the firm’s plant in San Francisco between 2015 and 2016.

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The lawsuit on behalf of Diaz, who was not a Tesla employee but was contracted to their site by agency Citistaff, alleged African-American workers "encountered a scene straight from the Jim Crow era" at the Fremont factory.

The suit added that colleagues used racial epithets "daily" and told Diaz to "go back to Africa", according to the BBC, adding that "Tesla's progressive image was a facade papering over its regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees.”

Racism in the workplace

While the Tesla debacle occurred in the US, the issue of racial abuse and harassment at work is a global one.

Earlier this year, almost half of Black workers in Britain responded to a new survey stating that they’ve experienced it in some form at work, as reported by The Independent.

The data, which was published in a report released in June by the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), in partnership with the Lloyds Banking Group, also ascertained that 26% of East Asian workers and 23% of employees of South Asian heritage have experienced similar issues – along with 24% of mixed-race workers.

And, whilst the profile of worker wellbeing has been raised by the coronavirus pandemic, the data found that 56% of those employees who reported that racism has affected them within the workplace said that it has directly negatively impacted their mental health.

How can HR tackle racism at work?

Donald MacKinnon, Group Legal Director at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, told HR Grapevine: "About the worst thing an employer can do in these situations is to ignore complaints of harassment or other claims of discriminatory behaviour.

"Under UK Equalities legislation, a company is vicariously liable for the behaviour of its staff towards one another, with the result that both the harasser and the employer can be held responsible, with the potential for hefty awards. Even if the complaints are subsequently found to be groundless, a failure to investigate itself could lead to an adverse finding of discrimination, or indeed victimisation if the complainer is subjected to a later detriment by the employer or co-workers."

MacKinnon concluded: "When faced with allegations of discrimination or harassment, an employer would be well advised to conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate remedial action to address any concerns uncovered during the course of it.”

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