A Tesla employee is suing the company, alleging he experienced racial harassment, racial discrimination, and sexual harassment while working at the company’s Fremont factory between June 2015 and April 2016.
The suit was filed in the Alameda County Courthouse in California on Monday.
The employee, DeWitt Lambert, alleges in the lawsuit that co-workers harassed him by calling him the N-word on a continuous basis and made sexually explicit comments. The suit also claims Lambert was overlooked for job promotions because he filed complaints to human resources about the alleged harassment.
Tesla denied all the claims made in the lawsuit in a statement to Business Insider. Lambert is currently suspended with pay while Tesla investigates the claims.
The suit claims Lambert first complained to human resources about the “hostile work environment” created by his coworkers in fall 2015, but that there was no subsequent investigation.
Tesla’s statement to Business Insider does not mention a fall 2015 human resources complaint, but says Tesla first opened an investigation in April 2016 after Lambert told HR he was subject to “racially insensitive language” following an argument with co-workers.
“HR personnel investigated, interviewing all of the employees who were reportedly involved. That investigation turned up conflicting accounts of what happened, with other employees saying that Dewitt had the ‘dirtiest mouth’ they had ‘ever heard,’ including using the same racially insensitive language that he had complained about,” Tesla wrote in the statement.
“In the end, there was no objective evidence that anything inappropriate occurred toward Dewitt. As a result, our HR team coached this group of employees on the importance of behaving professionally and the investigation was closed.”
An employee allegedly involved in the April 2016 dispute with Lambert provided Tesla’s HR department with an instant message that showed he used “the same language when describing other colleagues involved in the argument from April 2016,” Tesla wrote in its statement.
The suit claims Lambert also showed human resources “hateful, violent, and racist videos” created by two employees who worked with him on Chassis Two, a part of Fremont’s assembly line, in July 2016, but that HR neglected to investigate the two employees who created the videos.
In its statement, Tesla said Lambert showed human resources a video that contained racially insensitive language on July 6, 2016. Tesla said human resources opened an investigation that day, but that the person leading it left Tesla two days later on July 8, 2016 and neglected to hand off the investigation to anyone else at human resources:
“It’s clear that our investigation should have continued uninterrupted until all the facts were known. We have terminated several employees based on what we’ve learned and have suspended Dewitt with pay so that we can finish investigating the circumstances of the instant messages that were just provided to us about his threats of violence against coworkers. We will continue to take action as necessary, including parting ways with anyone whose behaviour prevents Tesla from being a great place to work. However, it’s also clear that Dewitt’s version of events is not supported by the facts.”
Tesla denied claims that Lambert was overlooked for promotions because he made complaints to HR. Tesla said Lambert was promoted 12 months ago and wasn’t given a second promotion because he posted photos of “confidential Tesla technology on Facebook in clear violation of company policy.”
Complaints at Fremont
Tesla’s Fremont factory has been under a great deal of scrutiny recently.
Fremont factory worker Jose Moran wrote a Medium post in early February alleging he and other workers were subject to “preventable” injuries because the machinery was not compatible with workers’ bodies. He also said employees worked well over 40 hours to meet production goals, often putting in 60 to 70 hours per week due to “excessive mandatory overtime.”
Since then, Tesla Fremont employees have commenced unionization efforts and reached out to the United Auto Workers.
When the allegations first surfaced on Medium, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called them “morally outrageous” and said Moran was paid by the UAW to agitate for a union. The UAW denied that claim.
Musk denied Moran’s claims that workers were subject to frequent on-site injuries, prompting them to take medical leave, in an email to employees in late February:
“Obviously, this cannot be true: If three quarters of his team suddenly went on medical leave, we would not be able to operate that part of the factory, Furthermore, if things were really even worse in other departments, that would mean something like 80% or more of the factory would be out on injury, production would drop to virtually nothing and the parking lot would be almost empty.”
The lawsuit Lambert filed on Monday claims Tesla failed to properly rotate him after suffering a back injury that made it difficult for him to perform physical labour. Lambert eventually went on medical leave between September 1, 2016 and November 22, 2016, the suit claims.
Separately, a female Tesla engineer filed a lawsuit against the company in late February, alleging she experienced “pervasive harassment” and gender discrimination while working in Tesla’s general assembly department. Tesla denied the allegations.