Several weeks ago a jury ordered Tesla to pay $137 million to Owen Diaz, a Black elevator operator who worked at its Fremont, CA factory and was subjected to repeated racial abuse, from slurs to swastikas drawn on walls, even after multiple complaints to HR.

The only reason Diaz’s case was able to go to trial in front of a jury was because he had not signed one of Tesla’s mandatory arbitration agreements.

This is a watershed moment in DEI.  Because he was not bound by arbitration Owen was able to expose a serious, personally damaging breakdown at multiple levels at Tesla, something other employees have experienced there as well.

The problem with arbitration agreements became most widely publicized when sexual harassment was made public at Fox News, with Gretchen Carlson breaking her agreement to speak out, losing her job and settlement money.  Arbitration agreements had become standard components of employment contracts, with many employees not realizing what they were agreeing to until they needed to have a voice.  While presented as a way to mitigate costly legal fees on both sides, in the case of abuse or discrimination arbitration really only benefits the employer.  The employee effectively becomes silenced.

But this is all changing.

California just passed a new law called the “Silenced No More Act,” making it safer and easier for workers to speak out about workplace harassment and abuse even if they signed a non-disclosure agreement with their employer.  This adds to protection that came into place federally in 2018 under the STAND Act, which enabled employees who experienced gender discrimination or sexual harassment or abuse to speak out.

STAND came about in response to #MeToo and many women’s stories about workplace abuse.  Let’s hope that more states pass “Silenced No More” and that Owen Diaz’s victory against Tesla enables any worker who experiences racial discrimination or abuse to get their day in court.

Michelle’s mission is to help companies create equitable workplaces.  She is the Founder and CEO of Equity At Work, helping leaders achieve major impact through their diversity, inclusion and equity work. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.