"They have to be careful at this point not to over-react, despite all the pressure that's being put on them certainly by Congress, public pressure," said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former federal prosecutor. "I've got to believe they have an HR (human resources) binder that would sink a battleship. Step one is usually paid leave," he said.
But others said there's public relations value in taking action against employees. "They need to have a charm offensive, right?" said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond Law School who specializes in product liability. "Anything they can do to make themselves look like they're more vigorous or rigorous on safety."
Henning said any criminal charges are a long way off. In large organizations like GM, groups make decisions rather than individuals, as problems are bumped up the organizational chart, he said.
"It's hard to be able to say 'this is the person who made this decision,' and him or her alone," Henning said.
Also Thursday, GM announced a program to recognize employees who speak up when they see something that could affect customer safety. "GM employees should raise safety concerns quickly and forcefully, and be recognized for doing so," said Barra, who has promised a transformation to a safety-first corporate culture.
The ignition switches can unexpectedly slip out of the "run" position to "accessory" or "off." That shuts off the engine and the power-assisted steering and brakes and can cause drivers to lose control of their cars. It also disables the air bags. In many of the crashes, drivers have inexplicably veered off the road or into traffic.
Parts to begin fixing the cars are to start arriving at dealerships on Friday. But Barra has said it likely will take until October before all the cars are repaired.
The latest issue with the ignition switches comes as GM fights a motion in a Texas federal court that would force it to tell the cars' owners to stop driving them until they are repaired. GM says the cars are safe as long as objects are removed from the key chain. Plaintiffs claim that fix is insufficient. A judge is expected to rule this week.
Shares of GM closed Thursday down 32 cents, or just under 1 percent, at $33.30.
Marcy Gordon contributed from Washington.