RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Elon Musk's Tesla company has created a cutting-edge image with its bold approach to building electric cars and expanding solar energy. But it has also faced a lot of criticism over how it handles complaints about harassment and discrimination in the workplace. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Alyssa Jeong Perry reports on a Silicon Valley company under scrutiny.
ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: Tesla CEO Elon Musk aims high with futuristic projects. He says in this company video that Tesla can make the world a better place.
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ELON MUSK: Why does Tesla exist? Why are we making electric cars? It's because it's very important to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport.
PERRY: Musk has also said people who work at Tesla should not be jerks on the job, especially to those from historically underrepresented minority groups. That was in a memo that Tesla leader published in full to defend him and the company. Uber, Google and now Tesla are all Silicon Valley companies that have defended themselves in court and in the media over hiring practices and workplace culture. The Silicon Valley ideal is to be brilliant, competitive and fast-paced. People who work in that industry acknowledge that the culture of cultivating genius can be dismissive of everyday problems in the workplace.
Marcus Vaughan says he heard and saw racial tensions when he started working at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., last April. A week into his new job, he says he saw a supervisor picking on another black worker.
MARCUS VAUGHN: And then from there, there was other people that would say the N-word. Like, N-word go get this. N-word go get that. You know, I'm like, what - what is this place?
PERRY: The Tesla factory is the same place that, according to one woman's lawsuit, generated a notorious nickname among women who work there. At a company meeting last year, several women said male co-workers catcalled and whistled at them when they walked in a certain part of the plant. Engineer AJ Vandermeyden was at the meeting and watched as one woman spoke after another.
AJ VANDERMEYDEN: Another woman came up and said, you know, this is - it's as bad as she's saying, if not worse. The area she works in we've nicknamed the predator zone. They were telling the VPs, like, put a GoPro on a woman, have her walk there.
PERRY: Vandermeyden sued in 2016 over gender discrimination. She was fired last May after Tesla said her claims were unfounded. The factory worker, Marcus Vaughn, complained about what he saw on the job. He says he was let go for not having a positive attitude. He filed a class action discrimination suit after his contract was not renewed in October.
Tesla says the lawsuits do not reflect how seriously the company takes discrimination. Gaby Toledano heads the Tesla human resources department. She says the company requires antidiscrimination and anti-harassment training. And starting last year, Tesla has a special team to investigate harassment claims. But Toledano acknowledges that when there are disputes between workers, she sometimes hears about them far too late.
GABY TOLEDANO: So I am trying to change that aspect of this culture and every culture. We need to know immediately. And I would like to be fired if anyone in my group doesn't immediately respond and take action.
PERRY: Right after AJ Vandermeyden was forced out, Musk sent that all-staff email in which he asked people not to be jerks. But then he kept going. He said if someone was a jerk to you on the job but apologized, you should have thicker skin and accept that apology.
Joelle Emerson is a gender and diversity expert in tech. She says the culture of a company starts at the top.
JOELLE EMERSON: If you have a company leader saying that people need to develop thicker skins, that's not only, you know, related to harassment, it's actually what causes harassment and what enables it to persist.
PERRY: Tesla's Gaby Toledano says focusing on that comment takes it unfairly out of context. But Emerson says harassment develops in a work culture where people believe it's OK, and that it's not enough for company leaders to just react.
EMERSON: They need to really focus on the culture that they create and what types of behavior that allows for, what types of behavior it condemns.
PERRY: Tesla says it's against any form of discrimination. The lawsuits are still in play. With Vandermeyden's case, Tesla says they're in arbitration. And with Vaughn's case, Tesla had said it would rather fight than settle, even if it costs ten times as much. For NPR News, I'm Alyssa Jeong Perry in San Francisco.
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MARTIN: This story was reported with the help of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.