The recent wave of sexual harassment claims should be of concern in any type of business, dealerships included, as this trend represents a particular wake-up call to the auto industry. If you’ve been paying attention to media accounts you’ve probably noticed that there have been an inordinate number of allegations of harassment against auto dealers over the past decade or so.
Just Google “auto dealer harassment” to get an idea of how common these types of lawsuits have been in our industry. You’ll find many cases of not only sexual harassment, but also racial harassment, age discrimination, etc. The amounts of fines and damages that dealers have been assessed are eye-popping.
In a statement about a case against a dealership a few years back, a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regional attorney said that it was “amazing that at a time when the auto industry is struggling for survival and women exercise so much influence in the marketplace that anyone would in engage in sexual harassment or show contempt for female customers.”
An EEOC Acting Chairman also said in a statement that “sexual harassment and sex discrimination against women in traditionally male-dominated industries, such as the auto industry, are still unfortunate realities.”
Harassing conduct is sometimes so commonplace that we often don’t recognize the behavior as being inappropriate. Many people who have been around auto dealerships for any length of time may not be very surprised that this type of behavior exists, while others may feel that these are mostly frivolous lawsuits designed to extort money from dealers. Perhaps the accused were “just kidding around” and meant no harm?
No matter what, the dealer loses. Any lawsuit is a bad lawsuit. Besides the cost of defending these claims, there will likely be immeasurable damage to a company’s reputation. What owner wants the public to be exposed to media stories accusing their dealership of employing harassers or racists?
To help avoid these types of claims, dealership employees should be trained in harassment prevention. Staff members (especially supervisors) need to understand that it is simply not okay to participate in harassing or discriminatory behavior in today’s world, no matter what the intention.
What many people don’t realize is that even if you’re just “kidding around” and don’t mean any harm, this type of behavior can rise to the level of harassment. As far as the law is concerned, harassment depends on how the conduct was received, not on the intent. Employee who receive harassment training are more likely to understand that there are boundaries that must be observed in the workplace and more importantly, realize that there can be serious personal consequences for harassment.
Some states, such as California, require harassment prevention training for supervisors. That’s great, but what about the non-supervisory employees? There is often a great of down-time at a dealership, and employees may get bored and tend to “goof around”. Is it harmless horseplay or perhaps behavior that crosses the line? Are supervisors able to monitor their subordinates’ behavior at all times? Are supervisors setting a proper example? Supervisors can only go so far in preventing harassment. The responsibility lies with every employee.
Most companies have an anti-harassment policy that all employees must sign, although I would venture to guess that the majority of people don’t read it or understand it. Having a policy in place and hanging posters is simply not enough protection for a dealership. The US Supreme Court, in two separate cases, decided that employers may be able to avoid liability in a harassment claim if they (1) use reasonable care in establishing an anti-harassment policy including a complaint procedure and training; AND (2) the harassment victim unreasonably fails to take advantage of the policy’s safeguards.
So, if a harassment victim is trained on exactly what to do in the case of harassment (like who to report it to, and so forth) and fails to do so, the dealer will probably be in a good position to defend themselves.
It makes sense to train all dealership employees in harassment prevention. Perhaps then the media, the EEOC and employees looking for an easy target to sue, can go pick on somebody else.