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Car Salesman Confidential: Race and Stereotypes in Car Sales

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/24/2015 Mark McDonald

A few months ago my dealership hired a young man of Middle Eastern descent by the name of Kamel, which means “the perfect one” in Arabic. Kamel’s name is pronounced Ka- MELL … not “camel.” which is what many people think when they see it. Of course, even knowing the correct pronunciation didn’t stop a bunch of car salesmen from making fun of Kamel and his funny-sounding name. That didn’t surprise me much, because car salesmen will make fun of anything. What did surprise me was when Kamel attended his first sales meeting and a manager referred to him in front of the entire group as “Camel.” Not once, not twice, but three times.

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The first time it happened I struggled hard not to laugh. And I heard several salespeople behind me trying to stifle their giggles, too. After the second time the manager called him “Camel,” Kamel quietly and politely corrected him.

“Excuse me, it’s Kamel.”

But that didn’t stop a second manager from standing up a few minutes later and asking the new hire “How many have you got out, Camel?”

We walked out of that sales meeting with tears in our eyes from holding back the laughter. Kamel said nothing, but I’m sure he was humiliated. Later that day, I caught one of the sales managers in private and asked him if he knew he had mispronounced Kamel’s name. “I don’t know how to say it,” the manager protested, smiling in a way that indicated he knew exactly how to say it.

Over the next few days, I must have heard Kamel referred to as a camel about a hundred times. To his credit, Kamel never got angry or complained. Finally, he quit after only two weeks on the job. I’ve always felt Kamel could have sued our dealership and won a king’s ransom because we had created the very definition of a hostile work environment for him.

A car dealership is probably one of the only places in America where a bunch of middle-aged white men can deliberately mispronounce an ethnic employee’s name—or sexually harass a pretty young receptionist—and still get away with it. Sadly, many of the dealerships I’ve worked at seem to exist in a kind of time warp, as if the last 60 years of social progress and increased awareness didn’t happen.

Behind the scenes, the atmosphere at your local car dealership is a lot like a high school locker room. Well, maybe I’m being generous. Junior high is more like it. When you get a bunch of guys in the car business together—no matter what their age—the next thing you know somebody’s telling dirty jokes. Or you’ve got a belching contest going. Or a farting contest. Or somebody pulls up a picture on their phone of some grisly motorcycle accident, and everybody starts making jokes about it. Or one guy’s talking about how many beers he drank the night before and what he did with the young woman he took home. And of course, for every wild story told, somebody else has to tell a topper, a story to outdo the other guy’s. Some of these tales can be funny as hell. Anybody who’s been in the car business usually has a pretty good sense of humor and can tell a good story. (Whether it’s true or not … well, that’s another question.)

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Every person who sets foot on a car lot is instantly “pre-qualified”—judged—based on their car, their race, and their appearance.

But if you think the way salesmen talk to each other is bad, it’s nothing compared to the way we talk about our customers. Just to run down the short list, we may call you Too Highs, Dotheads, Patels, Push Starts (or Pull Starts), Camel Jockeys, Rug Pilots, and the ever-popular Bogues, Roaches, and Mooches.

Every person who sets foot on a car lot is instantly “pre-qualified”—judged—based on their car, their race, and their appearance. If you’re white, driving a nice car, and wearing nice clothes, you won’t have any trouble finding someone to help you. If you’re black or Hispanic, driving an older car, and not so well-dressed, you might have a little trouble rounding someone up. I’ve seen groups of five or six salesmen standing around in front of a dealership vanish from sight the instant a black couple drove up in a 10-year old-beater … because many salespeople believe all black people have bad credit and are as a waste of a salesman’s time. I’ve also seen salesmen turn and run the other way when Asian or Pakistani men pulled up. Why? Because Asians and Middle Easterners are stereotyped as having bartering skills. When a salesmen sees someone like that, they think “mini deal,” a lot of time and headache for very little reward.

Now, I’m sure someone who works in the human resources department of some major auto retailer is sitting there thinking, “None of this is true! We have excellent training in place, and very strict rules, and an 800 number for people to call to report violations. We work very hard to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen in our workplace!”

And that’s certainly true. Car dealers are keenly aware of these kinds of problems and work hard to prevent them. Every dealership I’ve ever worked at required me to go through some kind of training designed to stop harassment and end discrimination. Some of this training is very good. And on the surface, it works. I’m sure car dealerships today are far more enlightened places than they were back in the 1960s when my stepfather was selling cars. But after the trainer packs up his or her laptop and leaves … people revert to their old ways. Harassment and discrimination still go on. And it will continue to go on because car dealerships are just a reflection of the larger culture. What, you thought we were different?

Does this kind of thing happen at every dealership in America? No. Is every salesman you meet a sexist, racist, homophobic jerk? Absolutely not. Most of the people I’ve worked with are fine people who don’t do these kinds of things. But I have seen enough things like this happen at enough dealerships to think it should be a concern. Those of us who think these kinds of behaviors are inappropriate should start stop giggling and start speaking out when it happens.

I also have to note that there are many successful black people, women, and gay people, in all levels of car sales. I believe that is because the one thing that trumps everything else in car sales is success. If you’re successful, they don’t care if you have three eyes and a tail. As long as you’re sellin’ cars, that’s all that matters.

And they’ll probably get your name right, too.

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