Car dealerships need focus on DE&I to keep talent

CHICAGO — To Sherry Schultz, chief human resources officer at Walser Automotive Group, it’s pretty simple how dealerships change and become more diverse. And excuse her if she’s a bit frustrated that these changes have taken so long to occur.

“When organizations like ours step back and say who is our community and who are the people that we sell to, we know this,” Schultz said Thursday at an Automotive News Retail Forum: Chicago discussion on how to build and support a diverse, equitable and inclusive work force.

Schultz, the daughter of a dealer, said dealerships have known for decades about things such as women being the household decision maker “but still we don’t change.”

“This doesn’t change until this changes,” she said, tapping her heart. “And so we have to think about why we didn’t bring diversity and inclusion. Money? We haven’t done it now and we’re doing well. So why change? I think it has to be personal; it has to come from your own heart.”

Fleming Ford, president and founder of Culture Ignited, a coaching and consulting firm that works with auto retailers, said if dealerships don’t focus on building tomorrow’s work force, it could cause dire consequences later when it comes to acquiring and retaining talent.

“We haven’t done a great job of helping our front-line managers have the skills and capacity to build teams and make everybody feel like they’re important and valued,” Ford said. “And without that, we’re going to have a huge talent drought going forward.”

For Sonic Automotive Inc.’s Angela Broadway, the topic of diversity can be simple, while building a diverse and accepting workplace is more of a challenge.

“You know, diversity and inclusion — it’s not a complicated thing. It’s just a hard thing to deliver on,” said Broadway, senior vice president of human resources for the publicly traded auto retailer. “Because again, we’re all different and that’s OK. We just want to teach people to respect those differences, to learn about each other.

“And then typically at the end of the day, we figure out we have more in common than not. So it’s just really that philosophy.”

There are many risks for dealerships that don’t grow a diverse work force, said Chris Thornton, who leads U.S. sales strategy at Ford.

“With the market changing, I think you’re going to alienate your customer base,” he said. “If they walk into the dealership and they don’t see people that are representative of them, then they’re probably going to look at that as not someone they want to do business with. So I think that’s a big impact.”

For dealership employees, Thornton said if they see an inclusive environment with career opportunities “then obviously that’s going to be a place that we’re going to gravitate to.”

Ford said that with more and more Baby Boomers retiring and not being replaced, dealerships could face “a significant people shortage” if they don’t embrace diverse work forces.

“We have to figure out a way to become an industry people are excited to work for,” she said. “If you can’t include those people and make them feel like they belong, like they’re part of it, then you’re never going to survive. I think that has to be part of our objectives to meet mission-critical staffing needs going forward.”

Broadway said today’s staffing shortages have created “a war on talent,” making diversity, equity and inclusion efforts all the more important.

“We’ve got to be creative and innovative in terms of where we go to see people,” she said. “I do believe we have a wonderful story to tell; this is a wonderful business. We need to make sure that we’re able to tell people, ‘You have a real career for real opportunity in automotive.’

“So we’ve got to get our story out there.”

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