Car Salesman Confidential: Race and Stereotypes in Car Sales

A few months ago, my dealer hired a young man of Middle Eastern origin named Kamel, which means “the perfect” in Arabic. Kamel’s name is pronounced Ka-MELL … not “camel”. that’s what a lot of people think when they see it. Of course, even knowing the correct pronunciation didn’t stop a bunch of car salesmen from poking fun at Kamel and his funny name. It didn’t surprise me much, because the car salesmen don’t care. What surprised me was when Kamel attended his first sales meeting and a manager called him “Camel” in front of the whole group. Not once, not twice, but three times.

The first time it happened, I had a hard time not laughing. And I heard several vendors behind me trying to stifle their laughter too. After the second time the manager called him “Camel”, Kamel quietly and politely corrected him.

But that didn’t stop a second manager from getting up a few minutes later and asking the new recruit “How much did you get out, Camel?”

We came away from that sales meeting with tears in our eyes from holding back the laughter. Kamel didn’t say anything, but I’m sure he was humiliated. Later that day, I caught up with one of the sales managers privately and asked him if he knew he mispronounced Kamel’s name. “I don’t know how to say it,” the Headmaster protested, smiling in a way that indicated he knew exactly how to say it.

Over the next few days, I must have heard Kamel being called a camel a hundred times. To his credit, Kamel never got angry or complained. Eventually, he quit after only two weeks on the job. I always thought Kamel could have sued our concession and won a royal ransom because we 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 group of middle-aged white men can deliberately mispronounce an ethnic employee’s name – or sexually harass an attractive young receptionist – and get away with it despite all. Unfortunately, many of the dealerships where I have worked seem to exist in some sort of time shift, as if the last 60 years of social progress and increased awareness had not happened.

Behind the scenes, the atmosphere of your local car dealership is much like that of a high school locker room. Well, maybe I’m being generous. College is more like that. When you get a bunch of guys in the automotive business together, no matter how old they are, the next thing you know someone is telling dirty jokes. Or you have a belching contest. Or a farting contest. Or someone posts a picture on their phone of a horrible motorcycle accident, and everyone starts making jokes about it. Or a guy talks about how many beers he had the night before and what he did with the young woman he brought home. And of course, for every crazy story told, someone else has to tell a story that tops the other one. Some of these stories can be funny as hell. Anyone who’s been in the automotive business usually has a pretty good sense of humor and can tell a good story. (Whether or not that’s true… well, that’s another question.)

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

But if you think the way salespeople talk to each other is bad, it’s nothing compared to the way we talk to our customers. Just to run through the short list, we can 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 in a parking lot is instantly “pre-qualified” – judged – based on their car, race and appearance. If you’re white, drive a nice car, and wear nice clothes, you’ll have no trouble finding someone to help you. If you’re black or Hispanic, drive an older car, and aren’t very well dressed, you might have a little trouble finding someone. I’ve seen groups of five or six salespeople standing in front of a dealership disappear from sight the instant a black couple drove a 10-year-old beater…because many salespeople think all black people have bad credit and are like a waste of a salesman’s time. I also saw vendors turning and running the other way when Asian or Pakistani men stopped. Why? Because Asians and Middle Easterners are stereotyped as having bartering skills. When a salesperson sees someone like this they think “mini deal”, lots of time and headaches for very little reward.

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

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

Does this sort of thing happen at all US dealerships? No. Is every salesperson you meet a sexist, racist, homophobic jerk? Absolutely not. Most of the people I’ve worked with are good people who don’t do that kind of stuff. But I’ve seen enough things like this happen at enough dealerships to think it should be a concern. Those of us who think this kind of behavior is inappropriate should start to stop laughing and start talking when it happens.

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

And they’ll probably get your name, too.

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