My catharsis: Why I left Tesla
4 May 2018

My work as shown in a teardown by Mr. Munro and explained by MotorTrends.

I didn't want to leave Tesla. I felt responsible for and proud of my project and it wasn't quite done. It was designed and shipping, sure, but early production is a time of learning and tweaking this or that for better reliability, quality, test time, whatnot. I had great co-workers with whom I would have loved to do my next project.

There was just the problem of stress. I was waking up at night with frantic thoughts, stressing about my manager and HR. There was a 10 day migraine. I realized at some point that for weeks my shoulders had been painful with tension. I was coming home from work and pouring myself a drink instead of connecting with my children.

The problems started some year and a half earlier. After two fun, productive years with a strong manager and a consistent focus on technical excellence, my management changed. Also, Tesla made, from my perspective, a hiring mistake in another organization; call him Mr. X. At first rarely and with time more frequently and vigorously, Mr. X started pushing himself into my project. He created work for other people and contributed little, as I saw it. He was also aggressive, damaging the vendor relationships that I had carefully fostered. One vendor admitted that they felt punished by Mr. X for transparency, while with me transparency had helped us engineer better together. I didn't know how to solve my problems with Mr. X. My management mostly ignored my requests for help.

Finally, when my project had reached a certain maturity, I talked to Gaby Toledano. Gaby is Tesla's Chief People Officer: head of HR and then some. I had not had good rapport with my organization's HR person, a woman another ex-co-worker more pointedly described as "evil". I asked Gaby how I could get help. Gaby told me to work with another lady in HR, call her Ms. D. At Ms. D's request, I documented the problems I'd been having with Mr. X, a stressful process but I was hopeful it would be a productive step to improving the situation. Ms. D reviewed my documentation, spoke with other people, and concluded that there was "inappropriate behavior" on the part of Mr. X and said that she would provide feedback to his organization. When I asked what changes I would see and asked about my concerns with Mr. X's technical competence, she requested more documentation. So I documented more. It was painful. My list contained 14 fails spanning perhaps 15 months. It hit me then that I wasn't just imagining things. My manager concurred, saying something like that my list of issues was largely accurate. Ms. D said she would provide the information to Mr. X's management but that HR did not deal with issues of competence. But no matter how I phrased the question, I just could not get an understanding of how things might improve for me and my project. When I explicitly asked for "some feedback on what might change around me and my projects," HR stayed mum and said that they cannot discuss personnel issues. There was no plan that I could see for a long term resolution.

At some point, I suggested meeting with Mr. X to directly address our issues. Ms. D questioned the idea: "It may help by understanding what you hope to accomplish during this meeting with [Mr. X]? What would be the ideal outcomes?" I explained that I wanted to understand "where he's coming from" and that he might just be nice enough to want to work with me to resolve our issues. I concluded: "I don't have a vision for a resolution without me and [Mr. X] talking about this at some point." Ms. D never responded. I deferred to HR, in retrospect mistakenly, and Mr. X and I never spoke directly about our problems. Mediation was never offered.

All that documenting upset me. I realized exactly how many times Mr. X had behaved inappropriately, made unilateral decisions to the detriment of my product that were later reversed by others, failed to read information about topics where he wanted to be a key decision maker, etc. I imagine he was upset and stressed out about whatever feedback he was given. Since my attempt at reconciliation had been rebuffed by Ms. D in HR and no other mediation took place, our platform for interaction was in a terribly awkward place.

So it went downhill.

The Meeting took place in early January 2018. About half a dozen people attended. At some point Mr. X asked a question. I had an answer. About half a sentence into my answer, Mr. X interrupted. I asked to please finish. He let me finish. After some discussion, Mr. X walked around the table, sat down across from me, looked me in the eye, and told me that I don't need "to be so emotional". Or maybe he asked why I'm "so emotional." The Internet has ample advice for women on responding to put-downs like this one; I had not read them. I lost it and said something regrettable. The meeting continued, and not much later Mr. X interrupted my manager. My manager also requested to finish. Mr. X also allowed him. Mr. X did not, however, make any subsequent condescending remarks.

My manager - call him GM - and I happened to have a one-on-one that same afternoon. I apologized profusely for my comment and admitted that the stress had gotten to me and needed to get myself back together. I believed we were done discussing The Meeting. A few days later I asked to take most of a week off, to regain my bearings. GM and his manager agreed, asking me to keep it "fair" to the company, which I did by making up the time on days I would not normally work. One or two days before my week, GM presented me with a letter reprimanding me for my comment during The Meeting, threatening termination, and entirely omitting the context of Mr. X's behavior. I believed the omissions distorted the story to the point of misrepresentation. I later asked GM's manager about the letter; he knew that some letter was being drafted but seemed unaware of Mr. X's "so emotional" comment and unaware of GM's almost identical interruption without subsequent condescension.

A co-worker, upon hearing my recap of The Meeting, remarked: "That's sexist!" He advised me that Tesla had formed an organization outside of HR to independently investigate situations. I approached them and they indeed launched an investigation. During the two months it was ongoing, when I asked HR my "what might change for me" question the answer became: nothing until the investigation concludes. HR declined to take any action that I could see. In the end, the investigation "did not substantiate" my concerns because it "did not substantiate that [Mr. X] treats [me] any differently than he treats others." Basically, in as much as I understand, calling me "so emotional" wasn't deemed sexual harassment because Mr. X treated others similarly.

During those two months, things were deteriorating. HR, GM and I had agreed that GM would be responsible for keeping tabs on Mr. X so I wouldn't have to; and that GM would report back to Mr. X's management if he did anything inappropriate. GM let me down on both counts. I felt unsupported. Once or twice I wondered whether GM simply did not like me and wanted to make things so uncomfortable for me that I would leave Tesla.

GM also made me switch HR business partners from Ms. D to Ms. "evil". GM is a very mild mannered man. This was a rare time that I saw GM do something other than accede to other managers or other organizations, yet even with an understanding of why Gaby Toledano had directed me to work with Ms. D he insisted on reversing Gaby's decision.

On Sunday, February 11, 2018 I got a migraine. A couple days into the work week I realized that I hadn't been able to go outside without sunglasses since Sunday, and I'd skipped my nearly nightly drink every night that week. My migraine wasn't over. It was clear to me that I needed a break. I asked to go on unpaid leave for 4 weeks. GM went to HR with that request, which Ms. "evil" denied because it would be "unfair to other employees". GM did not ask whether there was a written leave policy; did not ask what routes for appeal were available; GM simply did not push back. He had watched me falling apart for months and when I really needed him, he did not to stand up for me. His manager did - and made a meeting happen with Ms. "evil" on the same day as I told him about the situation. Ms. "evil" again reiterated that 4 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with my stress would be unfair to other employees. That's when I started listing physical symptoms. Then Ms. "evil" said she would send me information about going on leave. She did not say that this was not the simple leave I had asked for.

The details of my leave are sordid and complex enough to warrant a separate post, but I did not spend my leave relaxing and disconnecting as advised by my doctor. I spent hours each week logging in to go through my work email because that was the only way to find most of the leave-related information I was sent and expected to follow up on; hours on the phone; hours documenting, at Tesla's partner company's request, why I was stressed out. Tesla has four different internal organizations (HR, disability, workers comp, and benefits) which handle leaves and they seem disjoint. In one of my conversations with a third party leave administrator, after her repeat requests about "did Tesla do this" and my repeat "no", I asked: "This seems like a clusterfuck". She replied: "Yes." I still, as of today, do not know what type of leave I was on. I do know that in those four weeks I did not get to relax and disconnect as my doctor advised; I did work on Tesla's behalf; and I was not paid.

The leave process was so stressful that I returned to work. Leave, in the form granted by Ms. "evil", was unbearable. I saw no future under GM since my obvious next projects required both management support and collaboration with Mr. X's organization , so I returned to Tesla to report to another manager, under a different VP, to work on another project entirely. My old project was mature enough that the path to completion was clear; I wrote a 15 or 20 page architecture document explaining key design decisions; I left my old group with sadness but with a clear conscience. But I hadn't dealt with the stress. I was still desperately in need of a leave.

One week later, I gave my customary two weeks notice.

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Written 4 May 2018
© Anna Mitros
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