To say General Motors has a failure to communicate among itself and with the outside is an understatement that grows with each passing day, especially in light of how it treated a whistleblower in 2003 over its handling of a recall regarding fuel leaks in the automaker’s line of compact SUVs.
Bloomberg Businessweek recounts the story of GM employee Courtland Kelley, who began his career out of community college in 1983, then became a safety inspector five years later for what would become GM’s Global Delivery Survey, auditing vehicles in rail yards for minor problems before leaving for the showroom floor. The survey would grow in scope over time under the hand of Bill McAleer, reporting more serious safety issues such as tie rods falling off, improperly attached brakes and, in the case of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy/Oldsmobile Bravada, fuel leaks.
Unfortunately for both McAleer and Kelley on separate occasions, GM not only didn’t consider the seriousness of their findings beyond a small recall of the affected SUVs — made only after a GM exec experienced the leak first-hand on the highway — but made every effort to silence them when they sought whistleblower protection in their individual suits against the automaker for corporate negligence. McAleer was laid-off from GM in 2004, while Kelley was eventually placed in a dead-end position meant to keep him from finding “every problem that GM might have.”
Prior to this final reassignment, Kelley was made brand quality manager and given a fellow employee named Steven Oakley to handle GM’s compact offerings at the time, the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire. Oakley took his place in 2004 in time for the growing concerns over the Cobalt’s ignition switch. On three occasions, he told the team led by independent investigator Anton Valukas “that he felt pressure to describe something as a convenience issue rather than a safety problem,” citing the fate of his predecessor at the hands of the company’s senior execs. Oakley attempted to address the Cobalt’s issues in a draft of a service bulletin, using language that was verbotten by GM’s product investigators.
As for Kelley, GM claimed in statement made to the publication that they would “reexamine [his] employment claims as well as the safety concerns that he has, and that’s part of our redoubled effort to ensure customer safety.”