Dewitt Lambert left his Alabama home in 2012 intent on making a better life in the Bay Area. The 45-year-old electrician had his sights set on Tesla. After three years of trying, in the summer of 2015 he finally landed a dream job working in the car maker’s Fremont factory.
But what he says he experienced at work is far from what he expected. He was met with coworkers who he says harassed him and used racist language, and a human resources department that neglected to follow up after learning that employees made a threatening video aimed at him.
On Monday, Lambert filed an 11-count lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging the company failed to prevent damaging abuse from happening in the workplace. Lambert is currently on medical leave for work-related stress.
Tesla Factory Workers Make Threatening Video
In the fall of 2015, factory workers got ahold of Lambert’s cell phone and secretly recorded a video.
“N***** we take your ass home, n*****,” one of the employees can be heard saying. “Shred you up in pieces, n*****. Cut you up, n*****. Send your ass home so everybody can have a piece of you, n*****.”
Lambert, who is black, said the video is proof of the race-based harassment he says he often experienced on the production line, where he installed seatbelts in Tesla’s Model X and Model S cars.
Although Tesla’s human resources department viewed the threatening video last summer, NBC Bay Area has learned the company failed to investigate the conduct and failed to immediately discipline the individuals involved.
“In reflecting back on the steps taken then, we don’t feel like we met our standard in terms of how we handled the people involved in that situation,” said Carmen Copher, managing counsel on Tesla’s legal team. “We also pointedly, don’t believe we met our standard in how the investigation was handled.”
Copher said the human resources executive who viewed the video failed to hand off the case to another investigator when that person left the company. The conduct captured on video was never investigated to conclusion, Copher said.
“What a company needs to do when they are confronted with racism or sexism is they need to act immediately” said Larry Organ, Lambert’s attorney. “They need to send a message from the very top of the company that this conduct is not permitted and they need to say or do something to the employees engaged in the illegal conduct.”
Previous Complaints; Investigations into Racist Language
Lambert said he had previously raised concerns to the company about five of his coworkers, including three seen in the video.
He said they repeatedly used racist and lewd language and engaged in inappropriate horseplay. He said one of his coworkers stuck a drill gun into his rear end. Lambert said that employee eventually got promoted and oversaw his work.
“I had to deal with guys walking up to me and calling me bitch-ass n*****,” Lambert said. “And they were my bosses.”
In the fall of 2015 Lambert said he notified a supervisor about the behavior, and in the winter, the human resources department. He said it didn’t appear as if the company took any steps to stop the harassment.
Copher said Tesla did investigate Lambert’s initial complaint when she said the human resources department first learned of the claims last spring, but that the company couldn’t substantiate them. She said the company interviewed Lambert’s coworkers, but that conflicting accounts made it impossible to determine with clarity that Lambert’s claims were accurate.
The human resources department coached the employees on proper workplace conduct and the harassing behavior stopped, Copher said. Around the same time, Lambert was transferred to a different line.
Threatening Video Comes to Light
Last summer Lambert was called into a meeting with human resources in response to an unrelated matter. During that meeting, a company representative discovered the threatening video on Lambert’s phone. Lambert’s coworkers made the video months earlier without his knowledge, before the company’s first investigation into the allegations of racist language.
The 58-second clip shows employees laughing and flashing gang signs. One employee is heard saying he would shred Lambert into pieces and send his body parts to his family members.
The company opened a new investigation, but Lambert said the human resources department never followed up and that his coworkers never got in trouble.
“Nothing was done about it,” Lambert said. “It made me feel like I was less than equal to everyone else.”
Copher said the company is now taking steps to discipline the employees involved in the video, which could include written warnings all the way up to termination.
To better manage internal investigations, Copher said the company is creating a global tracking system of all human resources complaints. Additionally, Copher said the company is expanding its anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training to all factory employees.
New Complaints of Intimidation
Even though the company moved Lambert to a different part of the factory after its investigation into Lambert’s first complaint about harassment, he says for months the men continued to intimidate him by glaring at him when they walked past his work station. He says he continued to make complaints to the human resources department.
He told NBC Bay Area he doesn’t feel safe working at Tesla.
“That’s disappointing for me to hear because I was not aware that he felt unsafe,” Copher said. “We will certainly meet with him to better understand what we can do to make him feel safe.”
Copher said Lambert only recently reached out to the human resources department about his new concerns.
In February he wrote an email to a representative asking for help.
“I’ve been having a few issues going on with me that I went to HR about and nothing happened,” Lambert wrote. “I’m sending this to you hoping to get something done.”
Copher said Tesla reopened Lambert’s case earlier this month, and that’s when the company learned that the probe into the racially-charged video slipped through the cracks. The human resources department was unable to substantiate Lambert’s most recent allegations of intimidation, Copher said.
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