Ethics and the Sales Relationship in World-Class Bull


The May issue of the Harvard Business Review offers up an ethics problem in its monthly case study: World-Class Bull (subscription required for full article). The three commentaries offer very different reactions to the facts presented in the case study’s fact pattern. John Humphreys, Zafar U. Ahmed, and Mildred Pryor penned the fact pattern.

The case study revolves around the acquisition of a new customer. The existing sales agent was having no luck. A hot shot salesman took on the challenge by using the customer’s love of livestock to generate the relationship and close the sale.

On one hand, you need to applaud the salesman for learning more about the customer and how to engage the customer in a relationship. The ethical issue arises because of the apparent subterfuge of the salesman in engaging the customer and developing the relationship. The ethical issue is raised to a higher level when the sales manager sends an email to the entire sales team applauding the salesman and describing all of the subterfuge in detail.

James Borg, author of Persuasion: The Art Of Influencing People, lauds the salesman for taking the steps to engage the customer on a personal basis. However, he thinks the sales manager should “be hauled in front of the company’s Idiocy Review Board for sending an ill-advised, potentially damaging e-mail.”

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, the coauthors of Rules to Break and Laws to Follow: How Your Business Can Beat the Crisis of Short-Termism, flat out declare the saleman’s tactics as unethical. They think the company should immediately fire the sales manager, discipline the salesman, send a message to all employees firmly asserting that deceiving customers or prospects is not the Company’s way of doing business, and rewrite the ethics code.

Kirk O. Hanson, the University Professor of Organizations and Society and the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, thinks the company should publicly reprimand the salesman and doubts that the sales manager is salvageable.

I see a problem with the salesman’s tactics, but I would not be so harsh as to pass judgment without an investigation and without reviewing the company’s code of ethics. There is flat statement in the case study by the salesman that he didn’t violate a single item in the ethics code. To me it seems hard to punish the salesman if he didn’t violate the company’s policies or ethics code. Since the conduct seems questionable, perhaps there is a flaw in the ethics code. I agree with Peppers and Rogers that you may need to rewrite the ethics code. Of course, it could also be that the salesman did know the content of the code of ethics.

Like the other commentators I have a bigger problem with the sales manager for not recognizing the ethical problem and sending out the laudatory email without a review or investigation. That is the bigger failure. For a company to maintain high ethical standards, front-line managers like the sales manager are key. They must understand how the actions by the people they manage affect the long term success of the company. The sales manager failed this test.

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3 Responses to Ethics and the Sales Relationship in World-Class Bull

  1. Jenn Steele July 14, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    You seem to indicate that behavior can only be judged ethical or not based on written guidelines. This rings a bit false to me (I mean, do you really need a code of ethics to say, “Don’t lie to the customer”?). Is that what you meant?

    • Doug Cornelius July 14, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

      Jenn –

      In reading the case study, the behavior is more deceptive than a straight lie. Clearly there is an issue. I was focusing on what action to take.

      Maybe it’s compliance person in me, but I wanted to focus on the process to determine what action to take. The commentators to the case study seem to jump right over that and into the judgment itself. (You used the word judge.)

      The salesman’s behavior was questionable enough that it is worth further review. I’m not sure I would fire him immediately based on the facts in the case study.


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