Movies and TV have made light of situations that would probably make many people cringe, or worse, in real life. Sexual harassment is no joke, yet it is an issue many shop operators need to remind their staff about on an ongoing basis, because it is all too easy to cross the line. Looking up a woman’s skirt might seem fairly harmless in such movies as “Grease” and “Animal House,” but obviously such actions in real life could land someone in serious trouble.
Even in a more enlightened age, jokes also continue to be made about female drivers, despite the fact according to research conducted by AdWeek in 2014, women spend $300 billion on auto repair each year. That means a lot of potential customers for shops are likely to be women, and shop employees need to know how to handle themselves accordingly.
“The first thing to note is these issues transcend industries, so sexual harassment isn’t something that is limited to the auto service sector,” said Kyle Maldiner, senior consultant for the New York-based Employment Practice Solutions and a noted speaker on issues related to sexual harassment. “All industries could use a refresher course, so employees know how to conduct themselves.”
The Youth Problem
Age doesn’t exempt one generation or another from sexual harassment training. In fact, many millennial employees, while growing up with greater diversity around them, can often tune out too much.
“It is my experience that younger employees have often had more opportunities to receive this training, but it isn’t always getting through to them,” Maldiner said. “The times might have changed, but what should constitute something that could be seen as sexual harassment doesn’t always resonate with younger people unless they have had practical experience or been involved in an incident in the past.”
Today’s millennial employees –— those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, and sometimes denoted by demographers as “Generation Y” — can lack an appreciation of some things because of an overload of information, especially from social media, where users can share too much.
“This is a big hurdle to get past given the youth’s obsession with social media, and many younger workers haven’t learned there are boundaries,” Maldiner explained. “This is because there aren’t such boundaries on social media. Younger people tend to react rather than be proactive about such matters.”
Many shops will try to explain these boundaries in the handbook and other paperwork provided at time of hiring, but Maldiner warned it is all too easy for new employees to simply not read it or not comprehend what they have read. Information that isn’t understood or appreciated might as well not be presented.
Shop owners and managers should ensure this line of training is given to every employee, but this training should also be ongoing, well beyond the time of hiring. Shops shouldn’t wait to respond. Being proactive is much better than being reactive.
“Sexual harassment training is absolutely important for all employees, old or young,” said Lenny Saucier, director of training at Take 5 Oil Change. “It is one of the first points of training every new employee goes through. We provide this as a ‘preventing sexual harassment’ course employees have to take.”
While sexual harassment remains a key issue of concern, it is just one form of harassment, and here too is why training needs to be ongoing and management needs to remain diligent. Many shops now have to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for any type of harassment, simply because it is bad for business not to.
“In today’s climate, harassment of any type — and sexual harassment is certainly a key area — is illegal and extremely counter-productive in a corporate culture, such as ours,” said Mark Souther, direct of HR at Oilstop Inc. “Sexual harassment training, in particular, is mandatory for our supervisors and higher levels of management every two years, as mandated by the State of California. Oilstop takes harassment of any type very seriously, and anything we can do — and I mean anything — to prevent it from occurring, we will do.”
Beyond training, shop owners, managers and employees alike need to work as a team, where no one should be made to feel as an outcast. As noted, sexual harassment is just one form of discrimination that can get a shop in serious trouble if it isn’t addressed quickly when problems arise.
“In order to minimize, or hopefully stop, discrimination and harassment, there must be some key elements in place. The obvious one is education of the cause and effects from discrimination and harassment,” Saucier said. “Then, there is having a no-tolerance policy in place.”
One of the biggest steps the industry could take, Saucier suggested, is to stop hiring because someone is a man or woman, and shops shouldn’t look at potential employees by the color of their skin or ethnic background. In all cases, it should be what an individual brings to the table.
“Only hire great people and see nothing else in them,” he added. “I believe Take 5 Oil Change does a great job in hiring great people, and it is what has propelled us forward. Great people have positive attitudes and strong work ethics. They are not defined by what they were born into but what they choose to be. Great people will only want to work with great people, and a strong bond is formed. When you form that bond, your team and your family prosper.”
Changing Times and Changing Image
Sexual harassment training further remains important especially as the same types of movies and TV shows that suggested such behavior might be acceptable, also typically present auto service shops as places where no self-respecting woman would want to go — let alone work!
“The industry has changed that image, but there is always more to do,” Saucier added. “We need to be welcoming to the customers and welcoming to our female staff members. Everyone who works at Take 5 Oil Change is part of a team, and everyone does the same job on the floor, so everyone is equal and should be treated equally.”
Most shops in 2016 are very welcoming and see that treating customers the same is the best policy any shop could have.
This is important not only to make for a safe work place, but also so it is inviting to customers. As noted, women make up a very large demographic for shop owners, and a shop that can’t make female customers feel comfortable will lose out on that business.
“There are a couple of parts to this,” Maldiner explained. “The first is, you’re never going to control your customer, so instead you need to control the employees. This means men and women (employees) need to have appropriate attire.”
While most shops probably require a uniform, unnecessary accouterments should be avoided. At the same time, men and women need to be held to the same standard.
“You can’t control anyone else, so you can only control your own business,” Maldiner added. “So making sure employees are respectful of one another and the customers is very important, because anything that isn’t respectful gets in the way of a productive workplace.”
This includes eye contact — an issue many people can be guilty of, even if they don’t mean it. This goes for how male employees view female co-workers and customers, as well as how female employees view male co-workers and customers, too.
“We call this elevator eyes, and it is absolutely inappropriate to leer at a female customer, but the same is also an issue with a female colleague,” Maldiner said. “Employees should be told to look people in the eyes and not at anything else.”
Outside the Shop
As shops can become more than a team, and in many cases like a second family, there still needs to be boundaries. What happens outside the shop can impact business and is something shop owners need to keep a handle on, as well.
“You need to think about the behavior outside the four walls of the workplace,” Maldiner said. “At the end of the week, it might be common for everyone to go to the corner bar, and something happens between employees. Sometimes people don’t think this is an issue, and they don’t say anything, because it happened outside the walls. However, this still presents problems. The boundaries of the business are not constrained by its four walls.”
This may not mean discouraging a post-work get together, but if something arises, it needs to be addressed. This is one reason ongoing training is so crucial.
The goal of training is simply to make for a productive workplace. It begins with understanding and is strengthened through ongoing training.
“There are so many people from different walks of life that can work at the shop,” Saucier said. “Today, you have to make sure everyone is comfortable coming to work, just as you’d want to be comfortable going to work.”