You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes. It means that you should always put your best foot forward whenever you meet someone new: It takes only a few seconds for a stranger to size us up based on outward appearances—and snap judgments based on negative first impressions are notoriously hard to break.
It’s sage advice when you’re gearing up for a job interview, but it also applies to the many ways that people “meet” your community for the first time. It might be through an apartment listing, your website, or a social media post. Or it might be when they first contact you—by phone, email, or office visit. Whatever way it happens, people will make snap judgments about your community based on their first impressions, and if it’s negative, it’ll be very difficult to overcome. That’s bad news when you don’t get the job, but it’s worse if it leads to a discrimination complaint.
Whenever a prospect first visits your office, for example, he’s sizing you up within those first early seconds of contact. Whatever your first impressions of the prospect, it’s likely to show in your facial expressions or attitude, which in turn influences his first impressions of you. If yours are negative, he may form his own snap judgment—that you are prejudiced and have discriminatory motives for whatever happens next.
In this Special Issue, we’ve gathered advice from our fair housing experts and offer seven strategies to get first impressions to work for you—instead of against you—in your efforts to comply with fair housing law.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that bans housing discrimination in just about all types of rental housing. The law forbids communities from denying housing to people—or treating them differently—because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.
Fair housing compliance starts with the way you present your community. It’s up to you to set the tone—through your training, policies, and procedures—so that everyone understands that your community does not tolerate discrimination against anyone based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, disability, or any other characteristic protected under state or local law.
To that end, your leasing office should reflect a professional atmosphere that is welcoming to all visitors—whether they’re prospects, applicants, or residents. It requires an investment in training so that the entire staff—from leasing consultants to maintenance workers and housekeepers—understand that they are expected to act courteously and comply with fair housing requirements when interacting with prospects, applicants, residents or their guests, regardless of race, color, or any other protected characteristics.
And there should be written policies and procedures for community operations to help the staff to put fair housing rules into practice. Training the staff to follow the rules consistently and keeping detailed records about interactions with prospects, applicants, residents, and guests will help your community fend off claims of unfair treatment or discrimination in violation of fair housing law.
Coach’s Tip: In addition to federal requirements, communities must abide by any applicable state and local fair housing laws, which may ban discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, source of income, or other characteristics.
7 STRATEGIES TO HELP YOUR COMMUNITY
MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION
1. Review Your Advertising and Marketing
For many, the first contact with your community is through your advertising and marketing, whether it’s in a print or online ad, on your website, or in a social media post. The goal, of course, is to promote your community and fill vacancies, but it’s equally important to send the message that your community is open to all without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. When it comes to your advertising and marketing, fair housing expert Doug Chasick quotes his former colleague Nadeen Green, who says you should ask yourself a simple question: “Would a reasonable person (that is, someone who has no agenda other than to rent an apartment) feel welcome?”
It almost goes without saying that you must abide by fair housing rules that prohibit discriminatory advertising. These rules apply to all statements—whether spoken, written, or online—that indicate any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. The test is whether the statement discourages an “ordinary reader or listener” from living at the community by suggesting a preference for—or against—anyone based on a protected characteristic.
Choose your words carefully to avoid any language that expresses any unlawful preference against protected groups—such as “no kids”—or a preference for others—such as “perfect for singles.” Take it a step further, Chasick says, by avoiding any “code words,” such as “quiet” or “peaceful,” which could lead to the perception that families with children may not be welcome.
Example: In March 2017, the Justice Department sued the owners and manager of three Washington communities of discriminating against families with children. The case began with a complaint that the community refused to rent to the family with a toddler because the buildings were “adult only.” The complaint also alleged that at various times, the community advertised available units as being restricted to adults only.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from denying apartments to families just because they have children,” Tom Wheeler, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “Many families already face challenges finding affordable housing, and they should not also have to deal with unlawful discrimination.”
Don’t forget to check your graphics. The ban on discriminatory statements extends beyond words and phrases to cover images, symbols, logos, and graphics that imply a preference for or against individuals based on a protected characteristic. For example, HUD warns that human models in photographs, drawings, or other graphics may not be used to indicate exclusiveness because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status. It may be obvious that you should use models of different races and ethnic groups, but don’t forget to include families with children (unless you qualify as senior housing) and people with disabilities to avoid the perception that they may not be welcome at your community.
2. Take Stock of Your Online Presence
Be careful about what you say online, because the ban on discriminatory advertising applies whether it’s in traditional media or on the Internet. Does your website convey a welcoming message? Or are there any subtle clues that suggest a discriminatory preference in the choice of models or amenities featured? It’s a developing area of the law, but you don’t want anything on your website, Facebook page, and social media sites to leave people with any impression but that all are welcome at your community.
Don’t ignore negative online reviews or social media posts if they contain any suggestion of discrimination at your community. It’s a huge problem, says fair housing expert Anne Sadovsky, and one that’s difficult to combat, given the many ways that people can post anonymous, often unfounded complaints online. You can’t do much to stop it, but you can post a response that reinforces the message that your community is open to all, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, familial status, and any other characteristics protected under state and local law.
What About Web Accessibility?
It may not be on your radar screen yet, but Chasick says that the next big thing to hit the rental housing industry is web accessibility. The issue is whether your website is accessible to individuals with disabilities, most notably people who are blind or have vision impairments. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that public accommodations (that is, places that are open to the public) be accessible to people with disabilities. For years, there has been litigation over accessibility at physical places of business, but recently the focus has moved beyond brick-and-mortar locations to company websites that offer goods and services to the public. Though it’s still early, the litigation so far has targeted retailers and other companies, but Chasick says the issue bears watching: It may only be a matter of time before it hits the multifamily industry.
3. Get Back to People ASAP
Your next contact may be from a phone call, email, a text message, or online inquiry. It’s usually a prospect responding to an ad or gathering information about the community, but it could be a fair housing tester—posing as a prospect—who’s checking to see how your community treats members of protected groups.
Of course, it’s important to make sure that your community doesn’t treat prospects differently based on race, national origin, or any other protected characteristic. For example, it’s unlawful to turn people away based on their race or ethnicity by falsely telling, say, African-American or Hispanic prospects that you don’t have any available units, when in reality, you do. The same goes for families with children and people with disabilities who require an assistance animal.
Even without seeing a prospect, you could face a fair housing complaint if you treat people differently based on the way they speak. If you routinely fail to return calls or give false information about the availability of units because the caller sounds like he’s African American or has a foreign accent, you could face a discrimination complaint based on race or national origin. The same holds true if you ignore emails or online inquiries from prospects whose names lead you to make assumptions about their race or ethnicity.
To avoid any perception of discriminatory treatment, the two most important things to focus on are the timeliness and consistency of your message, says Chasick. Respond using the same form of communication that the prospect used to contact you. If she called, call her back; don’t text or email. The same goes if she emailed you or sent you a text message; don’t call her if she sent you an email, he says.
Testers often look for differences in response times, but that doesn’t mean that every failed or delayed response is because of discrimination. It may be a simple oversight, but that’s not how it will look to a prospect—or a fair housing tester posing as a prospect. That’s why it’s so important to have written policies about response times, Chasick says.
And take steps to ensure a consistent response, because testers often check for differences in the quantity and quality of information provided. Develop policies on what information is provided to prospects and when it’s provided. If, for example, your policy is to give floor plans to every prospect, then you should give one to every prospect, regardless of race, national origin, or any other protected class. But if your policy is to provide it only upon request, then having the policy in writing will help explain why one prospect received it when another didn’t—countering any perception that it was due to discriminatory treatment.
Coach’s Tip: When you’re on the phone, Chasick says that it’s very important to check your attitude because the phone exaggerates everything—especially the negatives. It may exaggerate the caller’s accent, making him more difficult to understand, but that goes both ways—exaggerating any irritation or frustration in your voice. It’s even worse with cell phones, which may distort your voice, affecting the message that the other party to the call is getting, he says.
4. Welcome Visitors to Your Leasing Office
It may seem simple, but it’s important to welcome visitors to your leasing office. Of course, you have to abide by fair housing law. Everyone who works there—from new hires to the most seasoned professionals—should receive fair housing training so they understand the community’s commitment to fair housing principles and that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, familial status, and any other characteristics protected under state or local law will not be tolerated.
All too often, however, simple “people skills” are overlooked during employee training, says Sadovsky. That’s too bad, she says, because more people file complaints because of the way they are spoken to or treated than they do as a result of actual discrimination.
It starts with baseline civility, like standing up to greet someone when he comes into your office, Chasick says. All too often, he says, people don’t look up when they’re on the phone or their computer. Sadovsky says it can be a big problem in a busy office, where you might be with customers, or on the phone, or doing paperwork. But no matter how busy you are, you should always acknowledge people when they walk through the door. At the very least, you can look up and smile so they know you see them and know that they’re there.
Don’t let personal beliefs, opinions, and judgments affect the way you treat people, particularly in initial encounters with prospects since you don’t know much about each other at that point. Of course, everyone has the right to her own personal beliefs and opinions, so there’s nothing unlawful about judging people based on outward appearances. Nevertheless, you’ve got to be careful—even if you don’t say anything, your facial expressions or body language may give you away, triggering the perception of discrimination. That’s why you should be prepared to put on your game face when you get to work, so that you greet everyone with the same cordial professional attitude, no matter who she is or what she looks like.
Be prepared so you’ll know how to act when greeting people from other cultures. There’s a fine line between disrespect and discrimination, Chasick says, so you should take the time to learn about social conventions, particularly when interacting with people from the three or four major demographic groups in your area.
Learning about important cultural differences can also help you avoid showing disrespect and inadvertently offending anyone. For example, you might be in the habit of shaking hands when greeting people, but Chasick and Sadovsky warn that it isn’t considered appropriate in some cultures. And you might not realize it, but there are certain hand gestures that seem harmless in this country, but are quite offensive in different countries and cultures across the world, Chasick says.
Take it a step further by learning a few words in another language, Chasick says. If, for example, you’re located in a place where 70 percent of the people are Hispanic, he says that you should know at least a few words in Spanish to greet visitors to your office. If you don’t, it could be taken as a sign of disrespect—starting off on the wrong foot, instead of the positive one that you want when greeting prospects.
Coach’s Tip: There are free resources online where you can learn basic phrases in almost any language. Chasick says that knowing what your demographics are—and how to greet people in those languages—not only offers a definite sales advantage, but also enhances your fair housing efforts.
5. Set the Right Tone When Gathering Information About Prospects
Once the meet-and-greet is over, it’s time to get down to business—to meet with prospects to find out what they’re looking for and to tell them about available units.
At the outset, it’s important to set the right tone when prequalifying prospects. Sadovsky warns against subjecting them to an interrogation. All too often, leasing consultants immediately start by peppering prospects with questions from the guest card, with scarcely enough time to breathe before moving onto the next question.
A better approach, Sadovsky says, is to put people at ease by requesting permission to ask them a few things to help them find the right apartment home. She says you’ll find them much more comfortable and willing to answer your questions. But if you don’t, they may get defensive—and think that you’re invading their privacy. And if they are a member of a protected class, they may even suspect that you’re treating them rudely and asking invasive questions because of their protected status.
Avoid making any stray remarks or asking questions related to a protected characteristic, which could get you into fair housing trouble. You might simply be curious—or trying to be friendly—but people can be easily offended if they think you’ve crossed the line by saying or asking something that you shouldn’t. When meeting people from foreign countries or different cultures, for example, don’t ask questions about their accent or clothing, even if you’re genuinely interested in knowing more about where they come from. Though your intentions are good, the prospect may suspect that you have discriminatory reasons for asking questions related to her national origin.
Don’t ask people about their disabilities—even if you’re just trying to be helpful. With only limited exceptions, it’s unlawful to ask prospects questions about whether they or anyone associated with them has a disability, or the nature or severity of a disability. The law allows disability-related inquiries when necessary to respond to a reasonable accommodation request, but you must wait to be asked—you shouldn’t offer an accommodation if the prospect hasn’t asked for one.
When you’re talking to someone in a wheelchair, for example, Sadovsky warns that you shouldn’t make any comments—or ask if it’s permanent or what happened. Don’t ask whether the person can go upstairs, she says, but do ask whether there’s anything special or important that he’s looking for in his new apartment home, so he can tell you about any limitations or special needs he may have.
6. Tell Prospects About All Available Units
To comply with fair housing law, tell prospects about all available units that meet their stated needs, regardless of race, familial status, or any other characteristic protected under federal, state, or local law. It’s unlawful to turn someone away, misrepresent the availability of units, or refuse to show available units because that person is a member of a protected group.
Don’t make assumptions about what units would be best for prospects based on protected characteristics, such as disability or familial status. Just because someone is in a wheelchair or has young children, you shouldn’t assume that she wouldn’t be interested in a unit on an upper level. Limiting a prospect’s housing choices based on a protected characteristic is a fair housing violation, commonly known as “steering.” In general, steering means guiding, directing, or encouraging prospects to live in—or not live in—certain sections of your community based on any characteristic protected under federal, state, or local law. Tell prospects about all available units that meet their needs—and let them tell you if they’re not interested in any of them.
Just be sure you’re giving correct information when telling prospects about available units. Fair housing problems often arise when prospects or testers are told different things about whether—and what—units are available at the community. That can lead to a perception of discrimination—that they’re being given false information about available units because of their race or other protected class.
Example: In June 2017, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) announced a $100,000 settlement with the owners and managers of a 60-unit apartment building in New York to resolve allegations of discrimination against African-American prospects on the basis of race. The lawsuit stemmed from a five-month testing investigation in which FHJC alleged that white testers were told about and shown available apartments, but African-American testers were given incorrect information about apartment availabilities, quoted higher rents, and steered to other buildings. The defendants denied the allegations.
Even when there’s no discriminatory intent, mistakes about whether units are available can lead to fair housing problems. It’s important to have a good system to track apartment home availability, but Chasick warns that fair housing claims can arise when employees ignore the protocol—for example, by relying on memory instead of checking the list when telling a prospect on the phone that a unit is available. If you don’t realize the mistake until after he shows up at the office, an apology may not be good enough. If you suddenly change your story about the availability of a particular apartment, someone could suspect that your belated discovery of the mistake is simply an excuse to cover up discriminatory motives.
7. Take Consistent Route During Tour
Take a standard route when conducting tours of your community. That way, you can ensure that all prospects have the opportunity to see the community in the same light, without regard to their race, color, or other protected characteristics. For marketing purposes, the standard route will probably include attractive features and amenities, such as the fitness center or pool. Deviating from the standard route—for example, by taking the long way to a particular building, or going out of your way to go by unattractive features, such as the trash collection area—when touring with some prospects, but not others, could be perceived as an effort to discourage them from living in the community. If it’s based on a protected characteristic, such conduct could be interpreted as a form of unlawful steering.
During the tour, be sure to show your amenities on an equal basis, says Chasick. Don’t assume, for example, that a prospect with a disability isn’t interested in looking at your fitness center or pool. Nevertheless, be guided by the prospect’s preferences. If the prospect doesn’t want to see the fitness center, you certainly don’t have to force him to visit it—though you should make a note on the guest card that you skipped the fitness center at the prospect’s request.
After the showing, Sadovsky says that you should always wrap things up—just before you leave the unit or on the way back—by asking prospects whether you’ve covered everything or if they have any other questions. Then you can end the tour by reinforcing the message that they are welcome at your community by telling them that the community would love to have them and all that’s needed to do is to fill out an application and pay the application fee. This strategy will not only help you close the deal, but also end things on a positive note by reinforcing your community’s commitment to fair housing principles.
- Fair Housing Act: 42 USC §3601 et seq.
Douglas D. Chasick, CPM, CAPS, CAS, ADV. RAM, CLP, SLE, CDEI: President, The Fair Housing Institute, Inc.; Norcross, GA; (321) 956-2188; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne Sadovsky, CAM, CAPS: Certified Speaking Professional, Dallas, TX; (866) 905-9300; email@example.com.
Take The Quiz Now
|Summer 2017 Special Issue Coach's Quiz|