Tesla fired a female engineer this week, just months after she publicly raised concerns about sexual harassment and wage discrimination at the company. AJ Vandermeyden sued Tesla last year and went public with her allegations in a February interview with the Guardian, but continued working at Tesla until her firing this week.
In February, Vandermeyden said that she stayed on at Tesla despite harassment because she believed in the company’s mission. “I’m an advocate of Tesla. I really do believe they are doing great things. That said, I can’t turn a blind eye if there’s something fundamentally wrong going on,” she told the Guardian.
In a lengthy and very clearly perturbed statement, a Tesla spokesperson told Gizmodo that the company conducted an internal and external investigation into Vandermeyden’s complaints last year, and found them to be without merit. The conclusions were re-reviewed this year, the spokesperson added, and led to Vandermeyden’s firing on Monday. Tesla’s new HR head Gabby Toledano personally delivered the news.
The statement reads, in part:
Despite repeatedly receiving special treatment at the expense of others, Ms. Vandermeyden nonetheless chose to pursue a miscarriage of justice by suing Tesla and falsely attacking our company in the press. After we carefully considered the facts on multiple occasions and were absolutely convinced that Ms. Vandermeyden’s claims were illegitimate, we had no choice but to end her employment at Tesla.
The termination was based on Ms. Vandermeyden behaving in what the evidence indicates is a fundamentally false and misleading manner, not as a result of retaliation for the lawsuit. It is impossible to trust anyone after they have behaved in such a manner and therefore continued employment is also impossible.
Tesla’s comments are remarkable, particularly because Vandermeyden’s lawsuit is still underway, and companies typically have blanket rules against commenting on personnel issues — especially when those issues are the subject of litigation.
And while Tesla claims Vandermeyden was not fired in retaliation for the lawsuit, the accusations about her professional performance come off as an effort to get back at her for making her allegations public. Therese Lawless, an attorney for Vandermeyden who has previously worked on high-profile discrimination lawsuits against Silicon Valley companies, suggested as much.
Lawless told the Guardian today that her client was “devastated” and that the firing was “clear retaliation” for Vandermeyden’s lawsuit and press interviews. Lawless also suggested that the firing and the company’s statement were intended to discourage other whistleblowers from coming forward.
Tesla said its findings were re-reviewed after the initial investigation last year to ensure accuracy. “We extensively re-reviewed all the facts to be absolutely sure the prior conclusions were correct, and we determined that they were,” a spokesperson said.
Vandermeyden started working for Tesla in 2013, and reported problems in the quality testing of the company’s vehicles that she said were overlooked by her male co-workers. She also alleged that catcalling and harassment were common in Tesla’s factory, and that men were granted more promotions and higher salaries than women. Vandermeyden started in sales before moving into engineering roles at Tesla’s factory despite not having an engineering degree, and was transferred to a position in the purchasing department after she raised her concerns.
Although Tesla alleged Vandermeyden was unqualified, it didn’t say why Vandermeyden received the promotions.
Tesla isn’t the only company facing harassment complaints — allegations of gender discrimination are also making the rounds at Uber and Google. But while Uber has promised a course correction, Google has refused to provide data on its wage gap and Tesla stands out for its strident defence of its HR culture.