Tesla’s Employee Class Action: Could HR Have Prevented This?

by: The Knowledge Group

November 20, 2017


Tesla has produced some amazing inventions and technology jumps. However, the company has also managed to produce itself some unhappy workers who have banded together with lawyers. 

The lawsuit that seems to be brewing is a cocktail of labor violation allegations. Unsafe working conditions, racism and discrimination, harassment and an environment that promoted it, and a few other tomatoes for good cause. The classic ex-worker is named as the primary filer, but the real kicker is that the lawsuit is seeking a class action status representing over 100 workers of color employed over the period of a year, specifically black employees mistreated due to their skin color.

While Tesla has officially stated they performed their own investigation of internal complaints and terminations were made, it doesn’t matter. The fact that the racism lawsuit has gotten legs and run means the damage is done and set in. And the most important thing is that if there had been a proactive human resource office, it could have been prevented or headed off well before the lawyers started typing their official filing.

The complaints about discrimination and racism at Tesla were not unknown. Not only had the HR office received formal complaints from black employees affected, Elon Musk himself signaled awareness of the problem when he addressed workers of color with the following statement by email:

“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.”

An HR office is the key point in finding and stopping employee labor problems well before they become yet another byline in the legal newspapers. And a number of tools are coming online that can make HR functions both strategic as well as comprehensive. They take a portfolio approach to employee management which then allows managers to connect common issues and identify problem patterns early. However, the people relegated to running HR offices need to get their heads out of the forms, and those managing the company need to start listening to the HR people instead of dumping them with managing job hiring postings. This is a long-winded way of saying what makes an HR office in a place like Tesla or anywhere else useless is its culture. Change the culture and amazing things can happen in problem prevention, but it has to be company wide. Tesla learned that lesson the hard way.

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