I was recently asked by an attorney — as we were enjoying some local cigars — if I thought ethics could be “taught.” We had been discussing an investigative sweep by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which ensnared Tate’s Auto, a string of stores operating in Arizona and New Mexico near the Navajo Nation Reservation.
The resulting complaint alleges the group falsified credit applications and down payments on contracts submitted to various finance sources. The FTC says Tate’s inflated the numbers provided by car buyers, making it appear that applicants had higher monthly incomes than they actually did.
"If the people at Tate’s abandoned their ethics and stepped over the line to unfairly enrich themselves, they will have to pay a price for it. Such incidents remind us we can all play a significant role in helping the industry by doing the right thing every time."
“We’re not talking about nickel-and-dime discrepancies,” wrote Lesley Fair, senior attorney with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in an Aug. 1 blog post. “According to just one of the examples in the complaint, a consumer told Tate’s she had a fixed monthly income of about $1,200, but a Tate’s staffer allegedly inflated it to $5,200 in the paperwork.”
What these people were allegedly doing can be described as both unethical and immoral. In fact, I often have a hard time separating the two, though the latter is a harsh description of one’s personal beliefs, albeit dishonest and without character. But for the sake of this article, I’ll just focus on the ethics — or lack thereof.
After I pondered the attorney’s question for a second or two, I responded with a resounding “No, I don’t think ethics can be taught.”
Now, like most columnists, I think I have a pretty good command of sentence structure, the ability to communicate with the written word and know the definition of most words, especially those I choose. This is why I was sure of my answer.
Turns out I was wrong. After having discussed this with Mrs. Marv, she was quick to draw my attention to the difference between ethics and morality. You see, I’ve always kind of associated the two and had never really drilled down into the differences until she challenged me.
We hear and read a lot about ethics in the car business, especially in F&I, where there are many fences and barriers set up to keep us on track and out of jail. When we talk about ethics in the car business, we’re usually referring to the rules of conduct provided by knowledgeable experts who’ve studied and compiled these standards. And part of our job is to adopt and observe accepted ethics.
Consider this for a moment: Lawyers, policemen, and doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own feelings or preferences. In other words, there are rules we accept when taking on a particular job.
Now, I’ve been in the F&I chair for a long time. I have seen my share of people stepping outside the ethical boundaries to chase a dishonest buck. I even did it myself, until I learned better, which brings me back to the question I was asked.
Yes, I do believe ethics can be taught and quickly learned. But in order for these practices to be observed in any given business, the tenor must be set by executive management — namely, the dealer principal.
This begins with the ethical treatment of employees, which will cause them to buy into the culture of doing things the right way because it’s the right way, even when no one is watching. And believe me, customers can sense character just like you and I can.
A number of attempts have been made to standardize F&I ethics, starting with the Association of Finance & Insurance Professionals and Tom Hudson’s “Carlaw” legal desk book, and continuing with the certifications offered by Automotive Compliance Education. These are just a few of the excellent resources devoted to dealership rules and regulations.
When I launched the Ethical F&I Managers Facebook group in 2010, my goal was to help fledgling F&I managers benefit from the collective wisdom of experienced pros. We now have more than 11,000 members, and that is still our mission today.
If the people at Tate’s abandoned their ethics and stepped over the line to unfairly enrich themselves, they will have to pay a price for it. Such incidents remind us we can all play a significant role in helping the industry by doing the right thing every time.
As a dealer, the most important thing you can do is staff your stores with honest and trustworthy folks. As an employee, make certain the customer gets not only a fair price but a great experience undergirded by a solid commitment to ethical treatment.
Good luck and keep closing.