By on October 4, 2016

Tesla HQ

A materials engineer fired by Tesla Motors earlier this year is suing the automaker, claiming that his age led to the dismissal.

The discrimination suit filed by Thomas Flessner, 69, paints a picture of a Logan’s Run-like corporate atmosphere that values youth above all else, Fusion reports. It’s the latest in a steady stream of complaints about the youth-focused culture within the tech industry.

Flessner joined the company as a contract hire before earning a full-time position on the automaker’s engineering team in 2012. He claims that his casting work earned him praise from CEO Elon Musk, and led to his position at the company’s Fremont, California factory. Once on board, however, two of his three supervisors allegedly made disparaging comments about his age, and one singled him out for it.

According to the suit, Flessner was regularly shut out of meetings, faced unusually harsh rebukes, and saw numerous complaints about his work performance. He alleges that his supervisor often called him out for working too slowly. The average age of the engineering group was 27, Flessner claims.

His suit claims that “the younger engineers were not criticized for the speed of their work by (supervisor Paul) Edwards even though they did not accomplish their projects any faster than plaintiff.”

While serving as manager of casting technologies, Flessner’s manager, Mark Young, allegedly shot down any feedback from him. Young’s comments were along the lines of, “I don’t need that from an old guy like you.”

The treatment allegedly worsened when he returned to work after taking time off for congestive heart failure. An ex-supervisor, with whom Flessner had a good working relationship, warned that his current supervisors were “gunning” for him. Before his termination in February, Flessner claims that he and Edwards worked on an “action plan” to improve his work performance.

The plan stemmed from a September 2015 performance review, in which Edwards claimed he wasn’t working fast enough. According to the suit, “This criticism was unreasonable because it held Plaintiff to a higher standard than the other, younger, engineers. It was clear to Plaintiff that Mr. Edwards was implying that he worked slower because of his age. His work had not changed and his review showed that he continued to provide value to the company.”

Flessner is suing for compensatory damages, including lost wages and stock options, pre-judgment interest, attorneys’ fees and costs, and punitive damages.

According to Pay Scale, the median age of Tesla employees is 30 — about average for a tech company. Past media reports on employment within the field revealed the surprising lengths to which some workers will go to avoid being seen as “old,” including one 26-year-old worker who underwent plastic surgery to appear more youthful.

In a society that prides itself on being diverse and non-discriminatory, Flessner’s lawsuit calls out an often ignored form of bias.

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55 Comments on “Ex-employee Sues Tesla, Claims Age Discrimination Led to Firing...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “In a society that prides itself on being diverse and non-discriminatory, Flessner’s lawsuit calls out an often ignored form of bias”

    It isn’t ignored, but it’s not taken as seriously and reasons are often misinterpreted. Older workers are sometimes seen as a) harder to train, and b) less willing to work for less.

    a) is probably bullsh*t in STEM, but b) is rampant in SV culture, and frankly in many established firms, where the perpetual six-month contract is the form.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “less willing to work for less”

      How dare they.

    • 0 avatar
      DukeGanote

      RE:”harder to train”. Perhaps less willing to fall for the software development fashion-du-jour (object-oriented ornamentation-and-ostentation; DevOps… or was that Dev-Oops?).

      There’s a reason that Silicon Valley and the Fashion Industry are much alike… A deliberate trendiness IMHO. It enhances the CEO’s self-image to be surrounded by youth, and we know how vain they can be…
      https://aeon.co/essays/you-don-t-have-to-be-stupid-to-work-here-but-it-helps

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        Ah, DevOps. Or as I like to call it, “I’m man enough to test in Prod”

        • 0 avatar
          DukeGanote

          You’ve lived the dream too? For years it was my *only* option because they weren’t going to “waste money” on anything but the most meager of development and test environments… Neither of which were kept in sync with production anyway.

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            I vastly prefer to work in environments where testing (of most, not all, changes) is done in prod, unless the deployment pipelines are unusually streamlined and ironed out. Nothing saps the life out of an engineering team, like drowning in process.

            Outside of the big guns, test environments and processes are generally too simplistic to catch much more than the obvious, that can be fixed almost instantaneously, anyway.

            Extending this kind of “management by overconfident recklessness” to “autopilot” soft/hard ware, may be pushing it, however…. Although I suspect no amount of overconfidence and recklessness I could ever muster up, will ever come within a mile of Marsman Musk’s.

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        Ah, yes, the methodology-du-jour. Over the years, I have grown to detest the willingness to blindly adopt frameworks, methodologies and “new paradigms” without understanding the ramifications thereof.

        To be sure, some of these developments are wonderful. OO programming, for instance, better models the real world problems we solve than procedural programming. It’s the idiotic mandates from “forward-thinking” managers who lack the experience that comes from experiencing the real-world costs that come with these decisions.

        Here’s where I would normally make a snarky remark about coding with pointers or hand-assembling opcode…

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    With an extra 4 decades of experience I’d hope he could work much faster and better than the new guys.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      He might or might not be able to, but you’re talking about a company spawned in a culture that’s driving guys in their 30s to use Just For Men.

      There are a lot of very qualified, very desperate young people. A lot of SV HR people know this, and are more than willing to tolerate a little churn to lower payroll. We’ve already reached a point where having a STEM degree is no longer guaranteed to get you permanent employment.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Limit H-1Bs and watch the automagical fix take place.

        • 0 avatar
          psarhjinian

          While I agree, it isn’t just H1-Bs, it’s that labour’s bargaining power is much weaker, and the barriers to the movement of capital much lower.

          • 0 avatar
            bunkie

            It’s worse than that. Where I work, the slavish devotion to “cost containment” by offshoring has blinded management to the real-world costs involved.

            It is impossible to immediately fix problems, we *always* have, at least, a 24-hour delay. Also, there is a firm cultural response from our offshore developers to be hesitant. I often write “please fix this, the issue is [this] and here’s how to address it” emails only to get “is that how you want me to fix it?” emails in response the next day after the resource has gone home. Considering that we have lots of expensive on-shore people depending upon rapid turnaround who have to absorb these constant built-in propagation delays, it’s no wonder we’re late and over budget. The cost savings never arrive.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I agree (with both).

        • 0 avatar
          whitworth

          “Limit H-1Bs and watch the automagical fix take place.”

          Exactly. I’m so sick of this lie that “firms can’t find qualified people” As if these companies like Facebook and Google (that are aggressively pushing this with incredibly lobbying efforts) are struggling financially and need to lower their payroll costs.

          I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes and it’s just about finding someone that will work for peanuts.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          As in, what’s Tesla called in Korean, Mandarin and Hindi?

          Building a zero emissions Mars craft, that builds a hypersonic air-evacuated tube between here and there as it travels, is hard enough without artificially restricting whom you are arbitrarily allowed to seek help from.

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        Sounds like a great reason for young STEM types to bail on the SV scene entirely.

        There are lots of other places that are hard-up for tech types and willing to pay accordingly. No Just For Men required.

        • 0 avatar
          yamahog

          Heck yeah. I live in flyover country and make ~70% of what I’d make in the Valley, but I have a decent apartment that costs ~33% of what it would cost in San Fran. I eat well, and I can usually save one paycheck per month and it’s unusual for me to work more than 50 hours/wk. If you’re not working on something really cool, I don’t get the allure of most of the companies in the valley. Is QA at Google really that much cooler than QA at Quicken? The take-home pay isn’t that much higher because it’s an expensive area.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          That is, kind of, what Tesla is trying to do. Ditto for many bio/pharma/genetics companies. With more and more industries following suit, including traditional automakers. The “pay” part dependent on whether you believe the “occasionally” (understatement of the year) overconfident founders’ faith in their own stock’s future performance, of course….

          SV hold huge attractions for many of the best STEM minds, due to the tools and environment being essentially cost free. In most other engineering fields, you have to beg a gaggle of managers, execs or boards, for resources to follow an intuition. And nothing zaps a smart guy’s motivation more than that. I can’t imagine how many brainiacs are tucked away in academia and industry, who never gets anything done, simply due to being so put off by the drudgery of their respective funding request processes.

          In SV, if you manager says no, and you feel he’s wrong, you do it on your own time (or just your own laptop) anyway. And if it turns out you just may have been right, you’ve got a product to sell. And in the current environment, there are plenty of people willing to help you do that…..

          • 0 avatar
            bikegoesbaa

            Eh, I’ve encountered lots of not-dumb management outside of SV who will let smart employees develop a clever idea.

            It might be more common there but it’s certainly not unique.

            There are certainly lucrative and rewarding opportunities for smart young STEM graduates that do not require putting up with the Silicon Valley lifestyle and culture; which largely seems to consist of working 70+ hours a week with your bro-tastic bros and paying insane rent for an apartment you never see anyway.

          • 0 avatar

            I think your view of the world outside of SV is a little twisted. While large corporations are a pain small companies value thinkers all over the world.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Interesting that he was capable enough to be converted from contract employee to regular status. It’s quite rare for any company to hire FT employees (below the exec level) at that age, other than the typical senior service jobs in retail, etc.

    My prediction is he’ll walk away with a nice retirement bonus.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Actually, that’s an interesting point. It may be that he was FT’ed either by accident, or that FT’ing him got the attention of some upper-management d*chebag who has a hate-on for paeons getting full employment.

      I’ve seen some pretty sick behaviour by power-tripping VPs and execs; people who will make the life of a front-line employee utter hell because they had the temerity to get a transfer, raise or promotion.

      • 0 avatar
        NickS

        @psarhjinian – I worked for a well known TLA, and at one point one of my team members, an intern with a PhD became the target of a senior manager a couple of levels above me. During a one on one the senior manager explained to me what that was all about and referred to the intern as “that little girl”. Both were female but what impressed me was the level of invective and hatred that senior manager unleashed for an extremely talented person who could only land an internship, but not a regular job. The reason apparently was that the intern asked other people if they knew of any positions that were opening up.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      I’m sure he at one point had skills the average 26yo did not. But skills are fungible. And as long as whatever department he was in is a team sport, being so different than the rest, needlessly slows down informal communications in what I have no doubt is a “very” fast paced environment. Dicking around with “special needs” for one guy, unless he is truly unique, is just pointless if you are trying to get stuff done.

      I’m plenty younger than that guy, and I’m simply lost if I’m supposed to work with 25 year olds who communicate and make major decisions while playing Guitar Hero and tweeting teen jargon back and forth. Of course it would irritate them over time, to have to spoonfeed me translations of everything that comes entirely natural to them.

      I can, to some extent, “manage” them if I can get it through to them that I am someone they kind of ought to have some level of respect for, but will never be a “part of the crew” anymore than a 69 yo, regardless of dancing “skill,” will be at a european teen disco.

      Of course, common sense never prevented an ambulance chaser from setting people up against eachother. Nor from rationalizing that him doing so, makes him something other than a complete and utter cancer.

      • 0 avatar

        You seem to be describing team learning. Older employees and younger employees working together is frustrating but also can be very effective. It forces people to think outside of their comfort level and then slow down. Which while not always the best for a tech company it usually nets you a better product.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          You’re very possibly right. Every organization is always in some danger of slipping towards a monoculture, where things seem obvious to them, but only because they are so utterly unrepresentative of their broader market. I’m sure Tesla has that kind of issues as well.

          But the notion that some ambulance chaser yakking to some judge or jury or arbitrator; is in any way, shape or form in a better position than Tesla itself to determine whether Tesla’s staffing decisions are right or not, is just ridiculous.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Harder to train? Yes. And the guy is 69, already past retirement age. I feel bad for the guy, but not that bad.

    I remember five years ago when my neighbor across the alley told me about being laid off. He worked for a company that did repair and troubleshooting on electric wheelchairs, in-home bed lifts/slings, stuff like that. Then I found out he was 70 years old – time to move on.

    Another guy I knew (missile engineer) worked until 75, retired, and died a year later. In his case, he was so valuable that his company didn’t want him to retire, but finally relented.

    Once you’re past retirement age, all bets are off.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      “Once you’re past retirement age, all bets are off.”

      Not according to the Age Discrimination and Employment Act.

    • 0 avatar
      chuckrs

      Full retirement age has moved to 67 for those born after 1960. I think it will move again for those born after 19??. When will 69 become the new 59? Of course you could always choose to die sooner but that is not the trend.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      that’s nonsense. a guy that age has a lot of *experience* with the whole “actually building cars” part of Tesla’s business. Given Tesla’s biggest problems are mostly their inability to assemble a quality car, they should be listening quite intently to older, experienced engineers who have been ’round the block.

      but this report sounds about right; I know people who have been suppliers to Tesla and they all universally say they are the absolute worst car company to deal with. These twenty-something (redacted)s can’t understand that building cars is not like writing smartphone apps; you can’t make daily changes to hard tooling just because you feel like it.

      I almost feel sorry for the people anxiously waiting for their Model 3s; if these are the people designing it I hate to see what you’re going to get.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      I remember reading a story about a doctor who still worked at 96. And how his patients, who had been his patients since he was young, didn’t trust any of those 70 year old “kids” with their health…..

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatist

      I’m 67 and see no reason to retire.

      It certainly is not ‘time to move on’

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Lay about you with your Sword of Justice, fellow geezer!

    Of course once you reach a certain age, you’re no longer gullible enough. I get that.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    I do think this is a real problem with technology companies, but not so much for the guy about to turn 70, but the people that are say turning 40.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I just changed jobs (voluntarily) at the age of 53, and I felt the burden of my advancing age with respect to my salary as an engineer.

      My new hiring manager is slightly younger than me, but had a bunch of younglings on the staff already, and they were ready to bring in some experience. To my surprise, they have a real mix of ages here, going all the way up to the mid-70s.

      When I applied for some jobs which seemed to want experience, they really just wanted to pay near-entry-level salary.

      But the man in this story has more than an age discrimination complaint; it sounds like a very hostile work environment in general. These young managers never learned any respect for their elders, let alone fellow workers. Most of them probably can’t stay married, either (no offense to anyone who’s suffered through a divorce).

  • avatar
    NickS

    A lot depends on the prevailing culture and the personalities involved.

    I’ve seen older folks who worked for decades with one company in junior roles, and it was clear why they never got promoted (temper issues, etc). I’ve had 70+ year old bosses and I was less than half their age, who were absolutely amazing, and perfect at solving bottlenecks and managing a group to great results.

    I’ve seen younger engineers get promoted to management positions and even with training, support and coaching, they still managed to let it get to their head. You need to have some life experience and perspective before you can manage people. I’ve only seen one 30yo manage the transition to management successfully, able to be circumspect and wise, and managing employee relations so well even though he personally didn’t have similar life experiences (employees with new baby, divorce, LTD).

    My issue with younger managers is that there is not much training offered in the valley, and not a lot of supervision or coaching. It is very easy for them to start thinking that they are “it”.

    There is a more general issue of making hiring decisions in large part to factors that have little to do with ability to get the job done, but rather culture, chemistry, and fit. That has some bearing on the success, but it’s not everything. I have been to many candidate interviews and still hear completely inappropriate statements being made and questions being asked, rife with huge assumptions about a candidate. This is all still happening in late 2016. I have to refer people to HR for training.

    I have been part of teams that weren’t an obvious fit in terms of culture and personality, but still managed to work extremely well.

    I think working in a place where EM is running the show is pretty much a giveaway that there is no room for being nice to one another or that there are consequences for misbehavior. It is a bit like amazon’s cut-throat culture. It is not really a problem until someone sues.

    Workplace culture comes from the top.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      “I’ve seen older folks who worked for decades with one company in junior roles, and it was clear why they never got promoted”

      I don’t get promoted because I *don’t want to be promoted.* we’ve latched onto this nonsense that companies have to have salary “bands” or grades, and once you reach the top of your grade you can only get cost of living adjustments. which is total bulls**t. If you have someone working for you who is an incredibly talented engineer, you want them to continue being an incredibly talented engineer. but the rigid salary grade model means you can’t pay them any more unless you promote them into a management position, which basically means they can’t be an incredibly talented engineer anymore.

      the whole system is completely f**king stupid, but we keep buying into it. about a decade ago, I joined a company as a project engineer. about a year into it, they promoted me to department manager. I quit two months later because I don’t want any of that garbage.

      NOT EVERYONE HAS THEIR EYES ON THE CORNER OFFICE.

      • 0 avatar
        VoGo

        Some smart firms are developing career ladders for employees like engineers and scientists who focus on their specialties, rather than on building managerial skills. But it isn’t a widespread practice, yet.

        • 0 avatar
          DukeGanote

          Companies have BS about that. One of my employers drew the titular distinction between “tech leads” and “team leads”, but they were really expected to be fungible.

          Note also that the US military eliminated the warrant officer.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            One is supposed to handle the people/HR aspect where the other is supposed to be in a project lead/senior dev/architect etc role. The tech lead also reports to the team lead (Mckesson called these “supervisor” though and not team lead).

      • 0 avatar
        NickS

        i have been fortunate enough to have worked with many career engineers who worked as such their entire professional lives. That was true in four startups, and at two multinationals. Most were anywhere from 10 years older to more than twice my age.

        The whole business of promoting very good engineers into managerial and even directorial roles in the tech sector is very problematic. The biggest advantage is having subject expertise for the work of the people you manage but that where it ends. The skills and training you need to manage people are not easy to get or acquired through osmosis. You could make serious mistakes and blow up the stand. This article if true tells us exactly that. If you allow or even encourage a hostile workplace you could get sued. Good luck with that if the suing party made copious notes of every incident, and you didn’t.

        @vogo – in fact the local and world renowned business school has an evening weekend MBA program packed with mostly engineers from the valley who are on a management ladder. This is meant to avoid the problem if having clueless MBAs or career managers with no technical skills managing engineers. But I am only aware of larger cos where an engineer can grow into senior roles without going into management. In smaller cos it takes a keen leadership team to make that possible, and in the valley that is the exception, not the rule.

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        I’ve got a direct report that sounds just like you. Reached a certain level and refused to go beyond. Let me tell you, he’s a joy to work with, and I have to keep him back in the corner for a reason, because nobody wants to hear the steady stream of griping and nonsense coming from his mouth every day. He is convinced that he and he alone knows how to “do the job right” and loves to write emails to inappropriately high ranking company employees about minutia. They all have a good laugh and dismiss everything he says, because he’s not worth the paper work and hassle it would take to fire him. Everyone at several levels of management and all his coworkers hope he retires or dies soon. His full retirement age will be reached next year and blessedly he’s started actually talking about it.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I’m firmly generation X and in the last three years reached middle-management. I didn’t understand age discrimination until I became the boss and boy howdy do I know now why people indulge in it. Because of my experiences managing people well in to their 60’s, I know that someday I too will loose a step or two, and I’m preparing for that day. I intend to step out gracefully well before I start dragging down my workplace, wherever that may be.

    It sounds like this guy was poorly treated, but if you’re not able to retire at 69, you’ve done something wrong.

    • 0 avatar
      NickS

      > if you’re not able to retire at 69, you’ve done something wrong.

      Or perhaps you did everything you could control correctly, but someone else in some boardroom did something wrong or unethical and now some people cannot retire by 69.

      Enjoy your own good fortune, but please have some empathy for people who weren’t so lucky even though they did it all properly. Because it does take luck oftentimes to win at the end of the day.

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        Point taken, and I’m not denying that lady luck can run you over when you’re not looking. A person can build up a huge 401k and then the market goes over a cliff and a deep recession starts a week later. BUT, I have learned in the school of hard knocks that no job is safe, no employer actually cares, and it’s up to me and me alone to look after my household and my lady love. I therefore act and plan accordingly. Everyone else can do this too.

    • 0 avatar
      Jagboi

      And sometimes things just happen. I know a couple who are working at 70 because they are now raising their grandson and putting him through college. The parents are no longer around (car crash) so someone had to step up to the plate and take care of an orphaned 12 year old (at the time).

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Tesla is a manufacturing company that fools shareholders into believing that it is a tech company. If the allegations here are correct, then management may also be fooled.

  • avatar
    FOG

    @dukeisduke – “Harder to train? Yes. And the guy is 69, already past retirement age. I feel bad for the guy, but not that bad.”

    @SaulTigh

    “if you’re not able to retire at 69, you’ve done something wrong.”

    Both of these statements should make intelligent people cringe. Shortly after 1900 retirement was introduced as an incentive for people over 65 to enjoy life for a few years before they died by the age of 72. It wasn’t something people who liked their work looked forward to. Until 1900’s you worked until you wanted to quit. Once the retirement opportunity was introduced, young employees wanted to use it to get the old guy out of their way and unable to point out the flaws in their logic.

    I am 55 and have no intention of retiring or letting my skillset fall behind the times. People on both sides of my family tree live into their 90’s. The only thing the 30 somethings have on me is physical strength and the ability to work long hours. I make up for that with experience and work smarter to resolve problems quicker because I have seen them or their cousins already many times.

    69 is a number. Based on this logic(or lack of) we can’t learn anything more from Jack Welch because he is 81. Warren Buffet should just lie down because he is 86. Ray Kroc was 59 when he founded McDonalds. Colonel Sanders started KFC when he was 72. Finally, we will all miss the Duke basketball coach as Mike Krzyzewski is … 69 years old. Dukeisduke, please tell him it is time to go.

    @SaulTigh – being able to retire and wanting to retire are different. I will be able to retire soon, but have no intention of doing so until I quit enjoying what I do and even then I will find something else to do.

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