Workplace communication in a #MeToo World
Anyone a little bit scared about #MeToo? It’s ok…..me too actually (pun intended!). As protecting profits is what I do, the increased risk of sexual harassment claims has weighed heavily on my mind since 2017, the year of Harvey Weinstein. And let’s face it, the risk was already high. Recent data from the EEOC newsroom validates that fear as they report a 13.6% increase in sexual harassment charges from 2017. Even so, sexual harassment and discrimination charges came in second to retaliation claims. This has been a trend over the last few years—retaliation claims attached to harassment & discrimination claims—a clear message that employers should train on claim response—but that is for another article.
Today, I’m concerned about the reactions and confusion that the #metoo fear is causing for dealer principals and managers. I’ve heard of managers making decisions to not hire a qualified and attractive woman. I’ve heard of instituting rules such as not having one on one meetings with female employees. I’ve heard that some dealer’s express confusion at how to communicate with their female employees—again, fearful of making some inadvertent misstep that will trigger a law suit. It’s kind of created a “walking on eggshells” environment in some ways. I see these reactions as part of our natural “fight or flight” inclination—human—illogical, but human. I believe there is a better way. A way that might even lead to changing our culture.
Sometimes it seems to me that we think of our collective industry culture as a given that can’t be changed —this is the car business and it is what it is. I’ve actually heard that statement while interviewing witnesses for harassment investigations—From GM on down: It’s the car business. It’s also no secret that women make up a very small percentage of the workforce in retail automotive. One can find different numbers but it’s safe to say the percentage of women working in dealerships is somewhere between 18% and 24%. Our wonderful business isn’t the only male dominated industry that has undergone heightened scrutiny as it pertains to the equal, fair, and professional treatment of women. Tech/Wall Street/Finance—any number of industries have felt the brunt of #MeToo—so, we are not alone. Change however takes time.
Change is slow
In 2017, Automotive News did a research project called Project XX—see it here, and also a follow up the year after. The follow up survey (here) shows that there is some improvement and what I think is more important, some willingness to actually talk about it.
relationships, even employment relationships—communication is or should be top priority shouldn’t it? That’s all well and good, but what do we do in the interim while these tentative conversations are taking place? How do we navigate this touchy subject and run our businesses with some semblance of normalcy? I mean, no one likes to feel as if they are walking on eggshells—where one innocently made comment can lead to all heck breaking loose. I mean, that’s what it feels like for some doesn’t it?
Equal means Equal
One of the first things I would suggest is to remember that in employee relations, the most important thing is that we treat everyone the same way. Remember those illogical yet human reactions? Not hiring women, having a 3rd person in one on one meetings with female employees, excluding female employees from outings—those things. What I would suggest is an all-around re-thinking of these reactions and seeing them for what they are and coming up with another solution. For example, if you REALLY feel the need to have a 3rd person in a meeting, begin doing this for ALL employees, not just your female employees.
Employees as Customers
Another suggestion is to begin to think of our employees as customers.
Maybe this seems strange at first, but let me explain. When I was in dealerships as HR Manager, I always viewed myself as having 3 sets of internal customers—it’s where I focused my CSI. (We are a business of Customer Service after all). The company/dealer first, then managers, and also employees. So, when we inject a little customer service into the equation things change a little bit don’t they? We can begin to see our employees as individuals—just like our purchasing clients, they have different needs and ways of interacting with the world. And we adjust to our customer’s needs in communication, don’t we? Perhaps if we recognize our employees as internal customers, we can begin to adjust to their communication preferences.
The first step to this is to begin to pay attention. We need to pay attention to our employees and their body language because it will tell you some things.
So, while we offer equal treatment in terms of employment issues—we can and should individualize our day to day interactions with employees. Let’s face it, we spend more time with the people we work with than our own families. It’s impossible to not have personal
interactions, communications, joking, and friendships. For me, what has always been most important is RESPECT and PROFESSIONALISM.
Professionalism before Personalities
In a perfect world, we would all be friends right? In the real world there are always personality conflicts. When interacting with employees that we perhaps wouldn’t be friends with outside of work, my advice is to rely on professionalism. I’m sure all of you reading this have an Employee Handbook or Policy Manual. Whichever name you call it, this is always your guide. Most handbooks have a “Code of Conduct” or similar policy with some language similar to the following: “All employees are expected to conduct themselves in a positive and professional manner at all times”. Reminding ourselves of these policies when interacting with our employees can help—especially if the interaction has moved from day to day personal interactions to perhaps addressing a performance issue.
Don’t be Joey
And lastly, what about those seemingly innocent and innocuous comments that someone find offensive. Again, rely on professionalism always and remember that “offensive is in the eye of the beholder”. When interacting with our employees and co-workers it can seem like a balance balancing act but it can be simple. If a comment or joke isn’t something you would say to a client—don’t say it to your internal clients. Maybe a co-worker looks especially nice one day and it seems natural to offer a compliment. I have never seen anything wrong with compliments—who doesn’t enjoy a compliment? And it is a question I get often from employees and managers alike. “Can’t I give a compliment?” My answer is always the same, “Yes, but don’t be Joey”—Joey Tribbiani that is. If you are a Friends fan as I am, you know what this means. Joey can make just about anything sound sexual, even Grandma’s Chicken Salad!
I hope that these suggestions are useful as we all navigate this new me too world, keep our profits safe, and our sense of humor too.