United States: Dealerships Must Put A Stop To Sexual Harassment, Or It Could Cost Them Big

Last Updated: January 17 2018
Article by Steven L. Ferenczy

The pitfalls of sexual harassment are obvious and problematic -- just look at current news headlines and the spate of high-profile allegations, lawsuits, firings and resignations. Unfortunately, even after decades of attention on this issue, sexual harassment continues in workplaces across industries.

While this issue is only now grabbing public attention, allegations of sexual harassment have been prevalent in various industries, including the dealership industry, for years. Recent notable cases include a $2 million settlement by a New Mexico dealership following allegations the dealership's lot manager subjected co-workers to shocking comments and unwanted touching; a Texas appellate court jury award of over $625,000, resulting from allegations by an aftermarket sales manager that her finance director repeatedly asked her out on dates, hugged her and made suggestive comments; and a Massachusetts jury award of $540,000 to a finance manager who also alleged inappropriate behavior, including sexually suggestive jokes made during sexual harassment training.

Dealerships that don't take appropriate measures may find themselves in deep trouble like the ones above. That is why it is important to take proactive steps to better protect your dealerships.

It starts with education

The first step is educating yourself. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The most common harassment claims are "hostile work environment," generally arising when repeated unwelcome conduct creates a workplace so hostile or offensive the employee resigns, and "quid pro quo," generally occurring when a supervisor seeks to exchange sexual favors from a subordinate for favorable treatment.

Second, implement policies and procedures designed to prevent harassment from occurring from the outset. These policies should include a definition of harassment, examples of harassment, reporting procedures for employees experiencing and witnessing harassment, and language that complainants will not be retaliated against. Additionally, don't forget to regularly update your policies.

Many policies direct employees to lodge complaints with their supervisor, but the supervisor is often the person the employee is complaining about. In fact, in one recent survey, 30 percent of respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances at some point during their career, and 23 percent received these advances from someone with influence over them.

Before listing a supervisor as the point of contact, you should ensure all your supervisors, including lower-level supervisors, have been properly trained. Additionally, you may opt to refer employees to a trained human resources professional.

Next, educate your employees regarding your dealership's no-harassment policies. You can do this by communicating policies in your employee handbook, posting them on your intranet and regularly disseminating them.

In addition, it is crucial to train your employees at all levels. Supervisors and managers should understand how to handle complaints, including examples of unacceptable comments and behavior — harassment takes many forms, including inappropriate emails or sharing of electronic communications and photos. Also, recognize complainants do not always use the words "harassment," but their complaints should be taken seriously nonetheless.

What employees can do

Employees should understand the steps to take, and the various reporting options available, if they believe they have been harassed. It is also important that employees know to immediately report any harassment. They should never wait to report an incident until they think the law has been violated. Your employees should be prepared to give accurate details about what happened and participate in an investigation.

Additionally, employees should follow up if the initial reporting does not resolve the issue. Employees need to be honest and, in some cases, ask for a desired resolution and should understand that sometimes these investigations take time and corrective action is not always immediate. Once an investigation has been completed, if corrective action has been taken, employees need to give the resolution an opportunity to succeed.

When your dealership becomes aware of an issue, it should swiftly investigate in a thorough and impartial manner. Investigations should include a review of all pertinent information, including text messages and electronic communications, and, most importantly, should be well-documented.

Once your investigation is complete, promptly take corrective action where appropriate. Regardless of whether your investigation finds improper conduct by a member of upper-level management or the receptionist at the front desk, corrective action should be taken up to and including termination.

Failure to identify and properly handle sexual harassment allegations can result in monetary judgments, attorney fees, reduced employee morale and negative media exposure costly to your dealership.

Originally published by Automotive News

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Steven L. Ferenczy
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