How to Turn Around a Toxic Dealership Culture


Working for an automotive retailer can be both challenging and rewarding. Dealerships with a healthy company culture provide equal opportunity to interact with different people, to become familiar with the latest vehicle offerings, and to enjoy a career with good earning potential. But what if your dealership’s culture has made a turn for the worse? Take a deep breathe and realize that by working to better understand the problems and putting forth some effort to change them, you can learn how to turn around a bad dealership culture.

Determine What’s Negative About Your Culture

It’s easy to point out the good when things are going well at work, but spotting the bad when there’s signs of trouble can be more difficult. Some obvious signals will show up when a dealership’s culture is starting to go, or already has gone bad. These signs of toxicity in the workplace shouldn’t be ignored. Left unchecked, they will tear apart any dealership from the inside; eroding away employee trust and morale.

As a dealer principal, a manager or just a concerned employee, learn to recognize the symptoms of a bad dealership culture so they can be addressed. You may encounter rampant amounts of gossip and dissent from sales members. Perhaps you’ve taken notice of little groupings and cliques that stand apart or don’t communicate well with others. Pay attention to those tired sales personnel who call out sick or say they feel overworked. Look at those service departments that suffer a high turn over rate or have a number of employees looking elsewhere for work as these auto retailers are experiencing the symptoms of an unhappy work environment.

Possible causes of a bad dealership culture are numerous, and may include:

  • Morale problems stemming from a culture based on fear and lack. Employees fear repercussions from management, their peers or the owners. A lack of care or concern from an employee about their responsibilities is reflected in their work.

  • Recent changes in leadership. Hiring of new management, a new CEO or new dealer principal can cause stress and dissension. Management who treat employees like they’re expendable or dehumanize them with their words or actions.

  • Recent changes in staff members. Employing unskilled or uncaring new hires may cause tenured employees to feel disrespected or disregarded by their leaders as they must carry the weight of others. A large number of new hires means the organization has little to no group cohesion. A new member shows resentment towards or disrespect of authority which affects their coworkers.

These are just a few examples of why the culture of a dealership may turn negative and there are many others. Typically, company culture drives the business, where a dealership that’s experiencing growth does so because it is a healthy and positive workplace. Bad dealership culture is reflected in the attitudes of its employees and clients pick up on this, causing customer service problems and lost revenue from poor sales and poor employee performance.

cultureHow to Address These Issues

Learning to recognize the signs of a negative workplace is the first step of knowing how to turn around a bad dealership culture and make it better. This may take some time and involve meeting in a group, by department and in one-on-one sessions to ask each employee their thoughts about the current dealership culture. Management needs to actively listen and take notes of the answers, because everyone holds a different point of view. Their perception of a situation is their reality.

Take action to address the issues and create a dealership consensus.


  • Admit there is a problem. Inform the staff that management is aware of the negative attitudes and problematic culture within the dealership. No one can make changes to something until they begin to understand it.

  • Start from the top and work down. Maybe the unpleasantness stems from the owner,  service manager or business manager. Each employee is an integral part of the company culture and must live up to their roles and responsibilities.

  • Involve staff to build trust. No one likes to feel left out, especially when it involves their livelihood. Employees perform better when they feel respected, heard and valued for their input.

  • Take accountability and show appreciation. Leaders must display confidence and trust in one another for it to filter down to the rest of the staff. Own-up to any of your own negative attributes and share kind words with everyone who transparently shares their position on the state of the dealership’s culture.

Implement a Plan

Again, there is no quick-fix scheme that will turn around a bad dealership culture. Just as it took time to degrade, it will take time to correct and improve. Having open and honest communication about the stressors within the dealership, will help you highlight the issues that need attention.

To solve them you’ll need a plan. Your store can’t sell every car on the lot all at once, or repair every vehicle in the shop simultaneously, so don’t expect to change the culture overnight either.

The dealer principal and managers must strategize and prioritize when planning the steps for change.

  • Choose the behaviors and attitudes that are most detrimental and address them in order of importance. This could involve counseling an aggressive manager on their leadership style, disbanding those cliques that display a separatist sentiment or simply committing to a better work-life balance to reduce employee fatigue and stress.

  • Treat your employees equally with regard to assigned tasks and customer service responsibilities. Examine your process for checking out keys, moving cars with the lot porters or pulling leads from the service waiting area and remove any unfair practices based on age, sex or other outlier.

  • Praise staff members for their good work and earnest efforts. Even when a goal isn’t met, show you care about them and discuss ways to improve so they get it right or do it better next time. Reward those who show initiative, but not to they point you belittle those who can not achieve the same level of production.

  • Reiterate the current rules and guidelines of the dealership or create new ones if those are outdated and don’t serve the dealership’s mission statement. Insure everyone understands and adheres to them.

  • Be prepared to let go of those who don’t support the new dealership culture. Give everyone ample opportunity to grow into the improved culture model, but don’t allow them to undermine organizational progress or to obstruct others from feeling safe and valued at work.

Admit, Ask and Adjust

A downward shift in the workplace dynamic is similar to a sales cycle in that what goes down, will come back up. Answering the question of how to turn around a bad dealership culture is a relatively straight forward one that involves participation from everyone to see it improve. Start by accepting the issues and taking responsibility for your role in changing them. Actively listening to your employee’s concerns, validating their position and working together toward positive solutions goes a long way towards repairing workplace relations. Set attainable goals for the new culture, hold staff accountable for their actions and adjust course as needed to tackle the most important problems first. With a little time and a concerted effort, a bad dealership dynamic can turn into a healthy, successful one.