Tesla has dismissed several hundred of the employees in its automotive division, with several news reports suggesting the company is trying to mask a major layoff by saying the firings are a result of job performance issues.
CNBC places the number of departures above 700—about 2% of the company’s work force—while CleanTechnica cites  estimates as high as 1,200.
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In a statement, Tesla said a series of recent performance reviews had also resulted in a number of promotions. “As with any company, especially one of over 33,000 employees, performance reviews also occasionally result in employee departures,” the company stated.
But news reports said the terminations were not related to job performance, and suggested possible connections to recent racial discrimination and harassment suits and efforts to organize a union at Tesla.
Fortune summarizes CNBC’s report that “some employees were terminated without being told of performance issues; that some had previously scored very highly on performance; and that many were ‘generally the highest paid in their position.’” It notes the dismissals took place over a span of a couple of weeks and “were abrupt, with some employees simply being told over the phone not to come in the next day.”
In an article republished article from Gas2, CleanTechnica notes that the United Auto Workers has been trying to organize the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, and had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the company’s alleged response to that effort.
“Tesla does not act like a typical company in any way, shape, or form,” notes correspondent Steve Hanley. “Elon Musk is known to be a difficult person to work for. He demands a lot from his people, and he has previously made his displeasure known about the union organizing campaign. He has made it clear that he considers any union activity to be a personal insult to him…”
Some of the departing employees see a link between their terminations and the organizing drive, CleanTechnica notes.
“I had great performance reviews,” said ex-employee Daniel Grant, who had worked at Fremont since 2014, had raised safety issues with the company, and supported the UAW. “I don’t believe I was fired for performance.”
Factory worker Mike Williams believes he was fired because he raised safety concerns at staff meetings, wore a union shirt to work, and had a union sticker on his water bottle.
For Forbes correspondent Chris Jones, the large-scale layoffs were unusual and create “disruption in a company, not just for work flows, but also lost productivity due to talking about what happened and what may happen.”