Founders Owner: Firing “Has Nothing To Do” With Former Employee’s Race

The controversy surrounding a racial discrimination lawsuit targeting Founders Brewery continues to grow. Here’s the latest updates.

Update, Nov. 1, 2019: Founder’s has settled the racial discrimination case with plaintiff Tracy Evans, with neither party admitting fault. Read the statement here. 

Last week, a deposition from a lawsuit alleging that Founders Brewing Co. fired an African-American employee because of his race leaked to the MetroTimes, which published it and reignited a controversy surrounding Michigan’s largest brewer. 

On Friday, Tracy Evans — the former promotions and events manager at Founders’ Detroit taproom — joined CultureShift to talk about his experiences at the brewery and what motivated him to file a lawsuit.

“Going through an experience such as racism is nothing new to people of color,” Evans said. “We go through these things all the time. Sometimes things aren’t said right away.”

Hear Tracy Evans, fired Founders employee alleging racial discrimination, explain the motivations behind his lawsuit.

Over the weekend, Founders diversity director Graci Harkema publicly resigned after nine months on the job, saying the company was “more interested in the optics of my face than the impact of my voice.”

This morning, Founders co-owner Dave Engbers spoke with CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper to address the mounting crisis. He admits the company erred in its initial public silence and underestimated the blowback the suit would cause. 

“It’s very well-documented that the only reason that Tracy Evans lost his job was due to performance, it had nothing to do with his race.” – Founders owner Dave Engbers

Courtesy Dave Engbers
Courtesy Dave Engbers

“We wish that the apologies should have been communicated in a more timely manner,” says Engbers. “We’ve never gone through anything like this in our 22-year history.”

But he says the company stands by its position on the lawsuit, claiming that Evans’ firing was due to poor performance, not racial discrimination. 

“We’re confident in the lawsuit. It’s very well-documented that the only reason that Tracy Evans lost his job was due to performance, it had nothing to do with his race,” Engbers says.

Engbers also addressed some of the particular allegations in the suit including that employees had used the “N” word around Evans.

Due to the sensitive nature of the allegations, Engbers responses have been transcribed at length below. 

Click on the player above to hear CultureShift’s conversation with Founders owner Dave Engbers, and read excerpts below.

Engbers says Dominic Ryan, the manager quoted in the leaked deposition, is on leave.

Ryan Patrick Hooper, CultureShift: Do you think that’s something people don’t deserve to know was said? The defense of Founders’ manager Dominic Ryan denying he knew the race of Tracy Evans.

Dave Engbers, Founders’ owner: I can’t imagine what was going through his head. That’s never been our stance as a company. Of course we know Tracy Evans is black. I can’t speculate on what Dominic was thinking.

Was he coached by Founders’ lawyer at all, to take that defense?

From what I believe, I’m sure he was coached to answer every question that you absolutely know to be true. And if you have any hesitation, say ‘I don’t know.’

At this point, the Founders manager Dominic Ryan, he’s still with the company?

At the company, we felt it best… we’ve relieved Dominic of all of his responsibilities as it pertains to the Detroit taproom. And we’ve asked him to take some time off until we can figure out what’s best for him and for the company.

Engbers says Evans, the fired African American employee, was underperforming.

You mentioned in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that you are very confident in the case. You’re saying it’s well-documented that this isn’t about race, and that it’s about Tracy Evans poor performance as an employee.

Yes. Tracy Evans doesn’t work at Founders Brewing Co. 100 percent due to his performance. It has nothing to do with his race.

He worked there for about 4 years. Was he a poor employee that entire time?

No, Tracy worked on our packaging line and worked his way up to become a lead packager.

When we made the decision as a company to open up a taproom in Detroit, we saw an opportunity, or I should say Tracy saw an opportunity, and applied for a position that I believe close to 300 people applied for. We saw it as a good opportunity for Tracy and he got the job. Unfortunately, during the time while he was down in Detroit, he was asked to do his duties, [they] weren’t being done to the satisfaction of the company. We put him on a program to get some coaching, to get some additional training. Unfortunately, after the personal development program that he was put on, he still didn’t hit the benchmarks that we had put in place and he had to be let go.

Engbers says the company had a zero tolerance policy towards racial slurs, but that was changed after an employee used the “N” word.

There were instances that Founders acknowledges that there were fellow employees of his that used the “N” word in his presence, and at least one of those employees is still hired by the company.

That is correct. We absolutely abhor, we do not tolerate any racism at Founders. As soon as it was brought to our attention, [human resources] was brought in and those employees were spoken to, it was put on their permanent records. One of the employees is no longer with us. One of the employees still is.

This goes back to the principles of Founders. We talk about “purposeful progress,” we fully admit that none of us are perfect. And we used this as a learning opportunity for that employee.

It’s not necessarily a zero tolerance policy, because the one employee is still there.

That is correct. At the time we had a zero tolerance policy. We are working to really hone our policy down. We are working with our teams to see what they think.

Engbers says the company’s choice to remain silent initially was a mistake.

Do you think it would’ve been easier to issue an apology and admit that there is possibly some wrongdoing, some of which Founders’ does acknowledge had happened in the workplace?

Absolutely. We wish that the apologies should have been communicated in a more timely manner. We’ve never gone through anything like this in our 22-year history. When this lawsuit hit us, we didn’t know the potential of what could happen. We hired PR firms and we had people tell us to say nothing. In today’s day and age, you can’t say nothing. You have to acknowledge it. And it’s so sensitive. We feel like we as a company, our job is to continue to move forward and to celebrate people of all different backgrounds.


  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.