Elon Musk: Whatever pain Tesla factory workers felt, 'I wanted mine to be worse'

Elon Musk
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Elon Musk has been under intense pressure to ramp up production of Tesla vehicles after a series of delays. Tesla recently managed to meet its production quota for its Model 3 cars, but now the billionaire CEO is being criticized for reportedly pushing his staff to the limit to hit those goals.

However, Musk argues that he's also made a point of pushing himself to the brink in order to show his employees at the Tesla factory that they are not the only ones being asked to go the extra mile to meet the company's production goals.

Musk has infamously slept on the Fremont, Calif., factory floor to be on hand to address problems quickly. His die-hard fan club led by YouTube video blogger Ben Sullins went so far as to crowdfund money to buy the billionaire executive a new, more plush couch to keep at the factory. But Musk says he was sleeping on the floor on purpose, he explained in a July 8 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

“The reason I sleep on the floor was not because I couldn't go across the road and be at the hotel. It was because I wanted my circumstance to be worse than anyone else at the company on purpose. Like whatever pain they felt, I wanted mine to be worse. That's why I did it,” Musk says, according to a transcript published Friday. “And it makes a huge difference to people."

Musk was responding to the claim from reporter Tom Randall that he is not responsibly protecting either Tesla or the electric vehicle maker’s staff as he pushes the company ever more aggressively to produce more cars, faster. Randall tells Musk that it seems like the CEO is "pushing workers to the limits and pushing the company so there is less financial stability,” according to the interview transcript.

On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek detailed seemingly extreme treatment of Tesla employees at its production facility, including the company reportedly providing factory workers free Red Bull to stay awake. Some employees also told Bloomberg Businessweek, on condition of anonymity, that they were instructed to walk through raw sewage that spilled on the factory floor in order to keep production on schedule.

Tesla says these characterizations are misleading, noting that employees have access to a variety of food and beverages and that the plumbing issue was fixed immediately when managers became aware of it.

Tesla went public eight years ago today. Here's how the company has changed
Tesla went public eight years ago today. Here's how the company has changed

Musk did not deny the accusation that he is asking a lot of Tesla and its staff. Musk says he has to drive hard keep his company going.

“If the expectation is, ‘Hey, we can live and not work hard and not strain extremely to a great degree,’ this is false. That is not true. In order for us to succeed, in order for us to live, we must work very hard,” Musk tells Bloomberg Businessweek.

Further, there are sure to be isolated incidents of mistreatment given the size of the company, Musk says. “We're 40,000 people at the company. If you have 40,000 people, you can always find some cases where there has been harassment, discrimination,” he says.

Still, Musk disputes the claim that Tesla employees are, on the whole, being treated unfairly. “The notion that people are not treated well at Tesla is false,” Musk says, while even inviting Bloomberg Businessweek to tour his factory unsupervised to see employees in action and speak to them firsthand. “Talk to people. See if they seem unhappy. See if they seem like they're not well treated. Bring others. We won't even escort you. Just walk around.”

In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek did speak to multiple Tesla employees, on the condition of anonymity, who detailed the conditions for factory workers that the publication reported this week.

"Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our employees,” a Tesla spokesperson told CNBC Make It in a statement. “This is not to say that there aren’t real issues that need to be dealt with at Tesla or that we’ve made no mistakes with any of the 40,000 people who work at our company. However, there should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our absolute hardest to do the right thing and to fail less often. With each passing month, we improve safety further and will keep doing so until we have the safest factory in the world by far."

To get his team through challenging times, Musk says he believes in leading by example.

“I care very deeply about the people at Tesla. I feel like I have a great debt to the people of Tesla who are making the company successful. OK?” says Musk. “My desk is the smallest desk in the factory — literally. And I am barely there. The reason people in the paint shop were working their ass off is because I was in the paint oven with them. I'm not in some ivory tower. I invite you to come by and ask them.”

This is not the first time that Musk has talked about wanting to set an example for his employees. Musk told the jobs website Glassdoor in June 2017 that leaders always need "to find ways of motivating and inspiring their teams" — and that starts with his own behavior.

"This applies to me most of all," Musk said. "Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours, thus leading by example."

See also:

Billionaire Elon Musk responds to unhappy Tesla customer
Billionaire Elon Musk responds to unhappy Tesla customer