On Monday, a jury in San Francisco decided that Tesla failed to protect a contract employee from racial harassment in late 2015 to early 2016. Sadly, Tesla isn’t the only company to have to deal with racial harassment within its walls. Racism is something that is deeply embedded in white Americans and it plagues us as a nation. As a whole, our nation, which was built upon the principles and foundation of white supremacy and with the blood of enslaved Africans, has a lot of healing to do. By making a statement, Tesla is taking part in this healing and enforcing its stance against racism while acknowledging its own role in a case in the middle of the last decade.
Tesla’s VP of People, Valerie Capers Workman, wrote the statement to Tesla’s employees and then shared it publicly (or someone shared it publicly) on Tesla’s blog. She attended the hearing because she wanted to hear the testimony of every witness.
“I wanted to hear firsthand what Mr. Diaz said happened to him. It’s important to understand the facts of this case.”
She laid out several facts of the case, which included that Owen Diaz, the contract employee, worked for Citistaff, not Tesla. Along with Mr. Diaz, three other contract employees testified as witnesses and said that they often heard racial slurs, including the n-word, but that most of the time the language was used in a friendly manner by African-American colleagues.
She noted that they all agreed that the language wasn’t appropriate in the workplace. There was also racist graffiti in the bathrooms and Tesla’s janitorial staff removed it. That aside, no witness testified that they heard anyone address Mr. Diaz with the n-word, who only made the complaints when Tesla didn’t hire him full time and after he’d hired an attorney.
She also stated that the three times Mr. Diaz complained about harassment, Tesla stepped in and made sure that responsive and timely action was taken by the staffing agencies. Two contractors were fired and one was suspended. The latter had drawn a racially offensive cartoon. Despite his complaints of harassment, Mr. Diaz had actually encouraged his family to work at Tesla with him.
The facts above are why Tesla doesn’t agree with the verdict. However, the verdict is a lesson we can all learn from. That lesson being: the workplace is not a personal space and racism shouldn’t be tolerated at all in any form. This thought is also addressed by Workman, who said:
“While we strongly believe that these facts don’t justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016 we were not perfect. We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago. We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns. Occasionally, we’ll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable.
“The Tesla of 2015 and 2016 (when Mr. Diaz worked in the Fremont factory) is not the same as the Tesla of today. Since then, Tesla has added an Employee Relations team, dedicated to investigating employee complaints. Tesla has added a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team dedicated to ensuring that employees have the equal opportunity to excel at Tesla. And Tesla now has a comprehensive Employee Handbook (replacing the Anti-Handbook Handbook) where all of our HR policies, employee protections, and ways to report issues are published in one easy-to-find online document.
“We acknowledge that we still have work to do to ensure that every employee feels that they can bring their whole self to work at Tesla. And as I posted in July, we will continue to remind everyone who enters the Tesla workplace that any discriminatory slurs — no matter the intent or who is using them — will not be tolerated.”
I live in the South, where racism is prevalent and highly visible while simultaneously subliminal. Racism is encoded in our societal DNA, and it is something we have to get out of our system. There are words, phrases, and habits that evoke this mentality.
My mother raised me well, I believe. The first and only time I said the n-word, she washed my mouth out with soap. Then later explained to me why the word was so bad. However, I often wondered why friends who were Black would playfully use it, and when I asked one friend, she explained this to me:
“We took our word back, made it ours, and you can’t have it.”
This makes sense. By using this word in a friendly way, they are taking their power back from the oppressors, which is beautiful in itself. But we need to be mindful that when we are in a professional environment, the focus is supposed to be on work and creating a safe environment for everyone. It’s good to see Tesla taking this head on, and even though it disagreed with the verdict, it accepted it and is using it to advocate for equality.
Let’s all remember to advocate for equality, especially when we come across situations where we, especially white people, have the privilege of not doing so and not being affected by that choice. Let’s make the world a better place.