What are the most common ethical issues facing salespeople? Many of the most common situations you could face as a salesperson involve issues such as the following:
- A customer asking for information about one of their competitors, who happens to be one of your customers
- Deciding how much to spend on holiday season gifts for your customers
- A buyer asking for something special, which you could easily provide, but aren’t supposed to give away
- Deciding to play golf on a nice day, since no one knows if you are actually at work or not
Let’s examine each of the issues. In the first issue, a customer owns the information about their business. The salesperson may hold that information, such as how many cases of the product they purchase or who their customers are, but that salesperson does not have the right to share that information with the customer’s competitor. In many instances, a buyer may ask the seller to sign a nondisclosure agreement because, in order to serve the buyer, the seller will gain access to important private information about that buyer. But even if there is no nondisclosure agreement, courts are likely to agree with the buyer that the seller has an obligation to protect the buyer’s information.
In the second issue, the concern is whether the gift is so extravagant that it is considered a bribe. In some companies, such as IBM and Walmart, buyers are not allowed to accept so much as a free cup of coffee from a seller. These companies do not allow their buyers to receive promotional items such as a pen or coffee cup with the seller’s logo on it because they want every vendor to have free access to sales opportunities and earn the business on their merits, not their freebies. Many buyers would question the motives of a salesperson giving too large a gift. Most salespeople agree that lavish entertainment and gifts are becoming less important in business because decision makers know these add to the costs of doing business and they’d rather get a better price than be entertained.
The third issue is tough for salespeople because there are two factors involved: a possible violation of company policy and providing an unfair advantage to one customer. Customers may not know that their special request could get the salesperson in trouble and the request may be reasonable, just against company policy. In that instance, the salesperson should not follow through on the request, though it might make sense to see if the policy can be changed. The second factor, though, is a bit more difficult because the request can be unfair to other customers, and may cause legal problems. As long as the special request can be provided to anyone who asks for it, no law is broken. What if the special request is for a discount? Pricing discrimination laws could come into play if such a discount is not made available to all who ask. What if the request isn’t illegal, but other customers find out and get upset that they weren’t offered the same benefit? Then the salesperson may get a reputation for being untrustworthy.
In the final issue, the question is whether the salesperson is cheating the company out of time and effort. Some argue that a salesperson who is paid straight commission (paid by the sale) is not stealing anything from the company, but others argue that even in that instance, the company is being deprived of possible sales that would be gained if the salesperson was working.
These are not the only issues that salespeople face. In the United States, two basic principles of business are that everyone should have an equal opportunity to earn business, and the customer remains free to make a choice. Manipulation, a form of unethical sales behavior, unfairly reduces or eliminates a buyer’s ability or opportunity to make a choice. Persuasion, on the other hand, may influence a buyer’s decision, but the decision remains the buyer’s. Manipulation can include misrepresentation, or claiming a product does something it doesn’t, but it can also include withholding important information, using hard-sell tactics, and other unfair sales tactics.
However, as mentioned earlier, salespeople tend to be ethical people. The use of manipulative sales tactics is actually pretty rare.