Tesla refutes claims in racial harassment lawsuit filed by one of its workers

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Tesla has refuted the contents of a lawsuit filed by an employee who alleges he was the victim of racial harassment and discrimination while working at the company.

DeWitt Lambert, a 44-year-old black man working on the assembly line at Tesla’s California-based plant, claimed in a suit that he was “subjected to racial slurs and lewd behavior” from co-workers for more than a year.

“They would call him the N-word throughout his workday, talk about the size of his penis and even placed a drill gun into his buttocks,” according to the lawsuit — which was filed by the California Civil Rights Law Group.

Lambert is currently suspended with full pay while Tesla conducts an investigation into the apparent incidents, the company confirmed. It, however, refuted a number of the claims from the lawsuit when contacted for comment.

“The lawsuit has been timed to coincide with a carefully planned media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative that is at odds with the facts,” the car maker told TechCrunch in a statement.

Lambert said an incident caught on video in 2015 is evidence of the threats and racist language that he endured from a group of then-colleagues. Despite multiple complaints to Tesla HR, he claims he wasn’t transferred to a new area of work until April 2016 while, according to the suit, “most, if not all” of the workers who allegedly harassed him were promoted while he was not.

Tesla said that its first investigation of the 2015 incident found that “there was no objective evidence that anything inappropriate occurred toward Dewitt.” It noted that Lambert had socialized outside of work with the accused employees and that he used “the same racially insensitive language that he had complained about,” suggesting that the incident had been taken out of context.

Tesla denied Lambert was overlooked for promotions. It said he was promoted one year ago, while a second promotion was denied after he was given a final warning for repeatedly violating company policy by posting photos of “confidential” Tesla technology on Facebook.

The company reopened the case in July 2016 when it said Lambert provided previously unseen video evidence of the incident. However, it didn’t progress further. In Tesla’s own words, the HR representative who led the previous investigation left days after the case was reopened and failed to pass it over to colleague.

The trail appeared to go dead at this point, despite Tesla saying that Lambert continued to communicate with HR staff on an array of apparently separate topics. Six months later, he filed the lawsuit.

Tesla confirmed it terminated “several employees” in relation to the incident, although it added that “Dewitt’s version of events is not supported by the facts.” The company said a screenshot from a Facebook Messenger conversation between Lambert and one of the accused — which it provided to TechCrunch — suggests that Lambert’s original complaint was filed as an act of revenge because he believed his coworkers had filmed him threatening a fellow employee and then provided the footage to Tesla HR. Tesla said that no such video was given to its HR department.

“[We] 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 behavior prevents Tesla from being a great place to work,” it added.

Full details of the lawsuit can be found here. Tesla’s full statement is below:

We believe strongly in having a good working environment and that people should look forward to coming to work every day. That means Tesla must always aspire to be transparent, respectful, fair and just. When we hear complaints or concerns raised by our employees, we take them very seriously.

A video recently came to light showing behavior by a group of employees at our factory acting in a way that we found disappointing and contrary to our values. It appears that a lawsuit is now being filed against Tesla in connection with this video. In the interest of transparency, we want to share what we know:

Based on interviews we have done, in April 2016, an employee named Dewitt Lambert got into an argument with a coworker and threatened him with violence. Dewitt, this coworker, and other employees had been part of a group of friends who worked together at the factory and also socialized together outside of work. The other employee filmed Dewitt making the threat and Dewitt mistakenly believed that some of these other employees had provided the video to HR in order to get him in trouble. (In actuality, the video wasn’t provided to HR).

Later that day, in an apparent attempt to turn the tables on the complaint that he thought had been made against him, Dewitt filed a complaint with HR about these other employees, claiming it was they who had mistreated him, including by using racially insensitive language.

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. 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.

Dewitt thereafter was transferred to another work area where he would have no further contact with those he complained about. There are no records of him complaining about new events for about a year after this. It seems that the transfer had its intended effect.

On July 6, 2016, during an unrelated conversation with HR in which Dewitt was receiving a final written warning for posting proprietary photos of Tesla equipment on social media against company policy, Dewitt showed HR an old video (taken in late 2015) containing the kind of language that he had previously complained about. This was the first time any video was mentioned or shown. The investigation was reopened.

The HR representative who had led the prior investigation left the company two days later on July 8, 2016 and didn’t hand off the investigation to anyone else.

Although Dewitt continued to have regular interaction with HR on a host of topics, for which he thanked them for their support, we have no evidence indicating that he came to HR with any further complaints of this nature. Then, through an attorney, Dewitt submitted a letter six months later demanding a very large payment or he would file a lawsuit.

Once again, we looked into his claims and found that the co-workers Dewitt complained about described the situation very differently. They claimed once again they had all been friends and socialized outside of work, and that all of them (including Dewitt) used similar insensitive language with each other on a regular, ongoing basis, including in social contexts outside of the workplace.

Confirming this, one of the employees Dewitt accused shared personal instant messages (attached) which showed Dewitt using the same language when describing other colleagues involved in the argument from April 2016. One of those messages indicated why he apparently decided to make these accusations – he was upset because of his belief that these colleagues had turned a video into HR showing Dewitt threatening one of them. The employee stated this was what led Dewitt to conjure up false claims about these other individuals.

Dewitt alleges that he was not promoted as retaliation for having made complaints. This is false. Dewitt was promoted 12 months ago, and the reason he wasn’t given a second promotion within 12 months is that, among other things, he had been given a final written warning for posting pictures of confidential Tesla technology on Facebook in clear violation of company policy.

That brings us to today. We have been told by Dewitt’s attorney that they will be following up on their previous demand for a large payment by filing a lawsuit. The lawsuit has been timed to coincide with a carefully planned media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative that is at odds with the facts.

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 behavior 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. It would never be right to take action based on an accusation alone — there must be objective evidence or credible witnesses to ensure that an innocent person is not treated unfairly.

It is night and day to work at a company with strong purpose and great team spirit, where people look forward to coming to work. Monday either feels like jail or joy, and the people you work with make all the difference in the world.