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Are sales ethics an oxymoron

Academic research is not the most exciting topic to bring up at a party. Sometimes though the area of interest creates a laugh, like the term "sales ethics."

"Sales ethics? Is there such a thing?" is the most common response I get (along with a laugh) when I mention that my area of doctorate research is sales ethics.

Can we have ethics in sales? It's easy to see ethical failures and only slightly more difficult to see how to steer correctly in the gray areas. In my research and discussions with buyers, seller, business owners,and academics, there are four guidelines to guide actions.

1. Is the action being considered going to unfairly or disproportionately harm someone right now? This looks at today and is usually based on a general sense of moral obligation. Moral obligation includes lying and being dishonest in a manner that takes advantage of someone who has less knowledge than you and cannot be expected to know differently. A great example of this is the car dealer in Fishers who recently lied to my friend about the ability to cancel add on service agreements and warranties sold with misrepresentation after the initial deal. The benefits he said were not what was outlined in the small print and all of the add-ons could be canceled even though the finance manager said they could not. Maybe he didn't read the back of the forms but it became clear when the buyer called to ask if the add-ons could be canceled, she did not know and he tried to take advantage of her lesser knowledge. This was a misuse of power until someone who did understand the contract language stepped in and called him on it--and he had to relent and refund to avoid a legal battle he would have lost.

2. Is the action going to create undue hardship or harm to a person or group of people in the future? At the time it might have been legal to dump chemicals in the back yard or back lot or to promote cigarette smoking as an activity without harm, but did anyone really think there was not going to be long term impact from dumping toxic chemicals in rivers or ingesting chemicals into lungs? There was no concern for what should have been reasonable future impact and therefore many of those companies are being held accountable for their actions.

3. If your competitor did what you are contemplating, would you scream foul to anyone who would listen? It might sound like providing a cash gift to a buyer is no big deal but when your competitor does it, do you call both buyer and seller crooked? If so, then you have a double standard and need to re-think your next step.

4. Is the action illegal? This is the easiest standard but surprisingly one that is often overlooked. The fact you won't get caught does not make the action acceptable. Again we look at how you would respond to a competitor doing the same thing.

I'm currently conducting research on sales practices and am looking for responses to my confidential survey on what is seen today as ethical and unethical. I'd like your input on what is and is not proper today.


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