Revisiting the dealership workplace environment in the #MeToo era of accountability


George Atis

Legal Columnist

George Atis

There is a reckoning taking place in almost every workplace environment and I am quite surprised that more heads haven’t yet rolled in the auto industry.

Let’s be honest, automotive – and especially, retail – is still a male-dominated space. (I mentioned to a senior consultant in the industry I was writing this column and he giggled and wished me luck trying to influence change).

If you’re “old school,” you are probably struggling to understand what is acceptable behaviour these days in a dealership environment. And, while different departments (the retail floor, back shop, F&I, etc.) have different cultures, it is important to know that “different cultures” are never an excuse to justify any type of harassment.

Understanding that it can be difficult, as a dealer principal or GM, to ensure your team adheres to a high standard, I am going to offer a few tips to try to make your workplace a non-hostile environment for every staff member.

No one is immune in the #MeToo or #Time’sUp era, so I hope you’re paying attention. I know of one B.C. dealership group that is facing a human rights tribunal over accusations of staff behaviour. Do you want to be next?

Workplace Environment Check-Up
Whether you own a single point shop with very few employees, are a general manager of a fancy franchise or vice-president of a large dealer group, I sincerely hope that shortly after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, you asked yourself this question: “What the heck is my workplace environment like and is my dealership or dealership group exposed?”

It’s never too late to change and I hope this fact is not catching you by surprise in terms of prompting you to take a look at your workplace. But, let’s assume you are a little behind in recognizing what a huge issue this is and are now wondering about what the immediate next step is for your workplace.

I suggest you call the head of human resources for an emergency meeting or, for smaller operations without dedicated HR departments, seek reliable resources online that detail what process to implement and content to publish to improve your workplace environment – starting right now.

If you are struggling about what is acceptable behaviour these days, just watch AMC’s Mad Men series and structure your workplace environment to be the polar opposite of Don Draper’s den of iniquity.

In all seriousness, I know adjusting to a culture shift like this can be difficult for many, but it is important to stress that what was considered normal a few decades – or even just months ago – is just not acceptable anymore.

The world and the workplace have changed quickly and not adapting with the times could mean you risk a serious lawsuit and irreparable damage to your reputation.

There is not enough space here to offer transformative advice about your workplace, but below are three quick tips you can implement immediately as you develop a more detailed assessment and long-term plan to adjust your workplace to the #MeToo era.

Think Carefully Before You Speak
It’s not rocket science. So why can’t some men help from saying inappropriate things?

Men have enjoyed immunity for our comments and behaviours for so long that some would argue we are programmed that way.

And before I get hate email from the more evolved gentlemen reading this, I already know there are plenty of guys who have no problem avoiding offensive behaviour or speech.

For the rest of you, just stop and think about what not to say before you get to the water cooler or copier or daily meeting room table.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself this: “Would I make this comment in front of my mother?”

Comport Yourself Like a True Gentleman
One of the first books I bought for my sons as they hit puberty was a pocket-sized book called 50 Things Every Young Gentleman Should Know.

I read it too and then promptly bought myself a copy. I really wish there was a course that taught this stuff in high school.

The net-net is that if you comport yourself like a true gentleman you will probably never have any issues with the opposite sex in any of your interactions with them.

Revise and Publish Your Harassment Policy
Of course, this is assuming you have a policy to begin with – and the size of your dealership is no excuse. At the very least, it’s a due diligence exercise that may mitigate some of the damages to which you could be subject in a harassment lawsuit.

The Ontario government has adequate resources if you are on a strict budget. A simple online search should yield some basic building blocks.
For large stores and multi-point groups, I suggest you form a temporary committee that is gender-diverse to look at your existing policy to see it meets today’s cultural standards.

I know many executives despise meetings and committees but, in this case, it is important to tackle the issue head on. Just make sure that the committee chairwoman (hint-hint) has a driven personality who doesn’t shy away from confrontation or change.

As a dealer or manager, it is important to lead by example. Your behaviour, how you carry yourself and your interactions with staff set the tone for the rest of your team.

Jokes meant in innocence or innocuous comments can be misconstrued, and if “the boss” does it, it implies everyone can (even though that would be a mistake). The workplace you provide should be about business, not developing personal relationships.

And for every man who is having a tough time adjusting to the #MeToo or #Time’sUp movements, just think of what it could cost you to settle potential lawsuits.
Today’s world is a lot different than even a few years ago and you’re either going to evolve or be part of the reckoning at some point soon.