Avoiding Workplace Harassment Claims

Jim Radogna
Another day, another news story about a sexual harassment lawsuit against an auto dealer. This time it’s the general manager and the GSM versus the receptionist. Allegedly, they were snapping her bra, whacking her backside with a back scratcher, hounding her with come-ons, and sending her inappropriate text messages among other things. According to the suit, the abuse became so bad that the receptionist quit her job after only 6 weeks. If any of this is surprising to you, simply Google “auto dealer harassment” to get an idea of how common these types of lawsuits are in our industry. You will 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 another case against a dealership, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regional attorney John Hendrickson 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.” EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru 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 snap bras, whack backsides or use derogatory nicknames in today’s world, no matter what the intention. As far as the law is concerned, harassment depends on how the conduct was received, not on the intent. 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 (bra-snapping)? 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. Once again, All Dealership Employees Should Be Trained In Harassment Prevention. Perhaps then the media, the EEOC and employees looking for an easy target to sue, can go pick on somebody else. For information on convenient and affordable harassment training programs, use this link: http://www.dealercomplianceconsultants.com/hartrain.html

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