Tesla’s VP of People Passes the Baton
This week, my colleague Josh Eidelson and I broke the news that Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla’s vice president of people, has left the company. Workman was the most prominent Black executive at the electric automaker and among a handful of high-ranking women.
Tesla has always focused on products, not people — aside from CEO Elon Musk. His tweets are official corporate communications; his appearance on various podcasts are the best ways to glean tidbits of what’s coming. When other executives do join Tesla’s quarterly earnings calls, it’s not uncommon for them to speak before being fully introduced — and for Musk to then talk over or interrupt them.
Apple’s website contains a “Leadership” page, complete with 18 executive profiles and glossy photos. Tesla has just three named executives: Musk, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn and Drew Baglino, senior vice president in charge of powertrain and energy engineering and the de facto chief technology officer. The bios on the governance page of Tesla’s investor relations site is bare bones with no photos.
Tesla’s executive org chart has always been a bit of a mystery. I used to be diligent about keeping one, but there was so much turnover and so many departures during 2018 that I largely gave up. Workman had a more public-facing role than many other executives. She spoke at meetings with officials in Austin, Texas, as the company was making plans to build a new factory there, and wrote an internal email that Tesla published as a blog post in the wake of the staggering $137 million jury verdict in a case involving a Black former contract worker who was subjected to a racially hostile work environment.
Tesla has long been the darling of ESG investors, who love the company’s clean energy mission but seem to give it a pretty big pass on issues of corporate governance. That is beginning to change, albeit slowly.
At the company’s last shareholder meeting in October, shareholders approved a non-binding proposal that requires Tesla to release additional reporting on diversity and inclusion efforts. Kimberly Stokes, the vice president and corporate engagement strategist for Calvert Research and Management, who presented the proposal, pressured the company to publicly release a comprehensive breakdown of its workforce by race and gender in 10 employment categories; that data is already collected and provided to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I don’t know the backstory of why Workman left Tesla. It is a notoriously tough place to work, and when you report directly to Musk — as she did — you are almost always in the line of potential fire. In an email to me, Workman confirmed that she had left Tesla and used this analogy from her time in high school as a runner on the 4 x 100 meters relay team:
“My job then was to run the second leg and pass off the baton in a better place than when I received it. I am confident that I have done this at Tesla with the implementation of so many important programs for employees worldwide. As Tesla works to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, I will be cheering them on from the sidelines.”
Who did Workman pass the baton to? If you work at Tesla and feel like talking confidentially, reach out to me in the usual ways. Signal is the most secure method — DM or email me at email@example.com for that number.
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