Combating Sexual Harassment in Automotive Dealerships

Having spent almost 30 years in the retail automotive industry, I have witnessed an abundance of sexual harassment issues that should be of grave concern for those who work at the retail level and who are external customers. As everyone knows, or should know, “sexual harassment” is a form of sex discrimination and is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Why is this topic being discussed in this blog? Quite honestly, as a sexual harassment training consultant in this industry, the dealerships need to do a better job in policing their environment from various processes that invite sexual harassment from occurring amongst associates and customers alike. Benign neglect in understanding the laws that govern sexual harassment is one distinct area that needs to be improved and ignorance in interactions with customers is the other. Allow me to explain.

The topic of sexual harassment, for most people, is difficult to explain much less enforce because of all the different forms it takes (i.e. hostile environment encompasses so many forms). Discussing what to say/how to say it/examples of each may be too sensitive for managers to discuss with their employees. Examples of “quid pro quo” may be less of a challenge to explain but may hit “too close to home” for some dealerships depending on the culture in the dealership.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more common forms of sexual harassment that occurs at dealerships and strategies to overcome these traps before they end up as huge monetary settlements to plaintiffs resulting in six or seven figure payouts.

In this the day of digitalization, texting, etc. in dealership sexual harassment can take many different forms, from viewing of pornography on dealership computers to discussing employees’ body parts to calling female employees derogatory names as well as propositioning customers. Sexual harassment is not limited to the sales department or sales customers. The Service Department for years had issues with policing the repair areas where female nude calendars were prominently displayed and were allowed to exist because dealership management felt that “productivity was increased” by having these calendars displayed for the benefit of the technicians. Management felt those pictures acted as “incentive” to boost productivity which in turn resulted in an increased number of vehicles repaired per day per week per month. This increase resulted in greater revenue for the Service Department and added to the dealership’s profit picture.

Other examples of sexual harassment that are pervasive at the dealership for both internal associates and customers concern “inappropriate language”, unwanted touching, inappropriate jokes, offensive signage, nicknames, and profanity. The dealership’s parking lot where customers park, and where new and preowned vehicles are displayed, as well as other dealership functions (such as: the body shop, Parts Dept. car rental desk, customer lounge) are potential “hot spots” where inappropriate behavior, offensive language, and pictures viewed on computer screens can be seen by customers.

What can be done about preventing sexual harassment from occurring in any dealership? Quite honestly, a dealership needs to be proactive in their approach to understanding the two fundamental types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

Dealership management needs to take an aggressive approach in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, in all forms, by understanding the pervasiveness of it as it takes many forms and can be committed by anyone. Dealerships need to take the following steps in combating it: (1.) Make sure the general privacy policy and dealership EEOC policy on sexual harassment is current and is distributed to all dealership employees. (2.) Check with the dealership’s legal department to identify the individual(s) whose job it is to conduct periodic meetings with new hires and current team members to review any changes in EEO policies for all to understand and follow.

Other steps to take are: (3.) Make sure that the showroom, or any other dealership department, does not turn into a “high school locker room” where both sexual or racial slurs are made without consequences to those who utter them. This sends the message to every employee that such conduct will not be tolerated. (4.) Make sure that all employees are held to the same standard and that the top sales person or manager must follow the same rules as everyone else. (5.) Immediate action must be taken if a manager says or does something improper, even if no one complains. Managers are considered agents of the dealership, the dealership is liable for whatever is said or done. If or when a manager makes negative comments about women, minorities, older customers/employees, the General Manager/Dealer Principal must counsel that manager and document the fact that he/she was counseled. (6.) Do not allow an employee who has reported the improper language or action to be punished in any way. Action taken against an employee who reports an improper incident can turn a minor problem into a major retaliation claim. (7.) Take time to train all of your managers to know the rules and your expectations in keeping the dealership free from sexual harassment.

Holding the managers to a “higher standard” helps to ensure that the dealership will not tolerate any infractions in this area.
Finally, a dealership needs to become “eternally vigilant” when it comes to what is said or done by its employees. If what is said and done is unacceptable by a fellow employee or customer, potential lawsuit(s) can be filed resulting in possible payouts resulting in hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars paid out by the dealership. Don’t let that happen to your dealership.

My name is Bob Hartman, a seasoned sexual harassment and leadership training consultant, well versed in the area of sexual harassment and other EEO related topics. I have over 30 years in the automotive industry, as an in-dealership consultant/trainer/coach who has worked with hundreds of dealerships across the nation in improving performance, increasing profitability, and working together in harassment free environments. I’ve worked with over 15 automotive manufacturers, foreign and domestic, in all departments, to work more efficiently as teams to exceed expectations of customers.

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