Business Research

Sales Integrity: First Make the Rules

Say you are the sales manager of a large company and have just learned that two of your sales executives, James and Terry, have routinely padded their expense accounts. James is a marginal producer who rarely meets his quota. Terry is a star, constantly exceeding his goals.

Your company's code of ethics clearly addresses this infraction, and you know that employees have previously been dismissed for expense account abuses. Losing James would not hurt the company too much. But you hate to lose a top revenue producer like Terry.

What do you do?

Bill Weeks, professor of marketing, advises that you shouldn't give Terry a mere slap on the wrist unless you are prepared to do the same for James. If you fire James and reprimand Terry, the message to co-workers is that it doesn't matter what you do as long as you are helping the company.

"How you treat people is important," Weeks said.

Weeks sees a code of ethics as an important first step for companies who care about honesty and integrity. But a company should do more than display a document and expect everyone to follow a list of rules. Top managers must show they are serious about ethics by acting ethically themselves.

"If companies have a well-documented code of ethics and their behavior shows that, they will lead people to conclude that (the workplace) is an ethical climate," Weeks said. "The perceived ethical climate is based on what top management does."

But the practice of ethics is as complicated as human behavior. Although managers must display ethical behavior if they want employees to do the same, a managerial style might have an adverse effect on the actions of the salespeople.

Weeks lists four important influences on one's ethical decision-making process:

  1. The values with which he is reared
  2. The people he works with
  3. The corporate culture
  4. The situation itself

"Out of the four, number two has been known to have the greatest impact on decisions," Weeks said, adding that people will remove themselves from the environment if they're uncomfortable with it.

This demonstrates the importance of fitting the person to the job, Weeks said. A company must know what kind of person will be successful in a job and find someone with that mindset and the ability to fill the position. If the company or the employee makes a mistake in that area, "You could have a person who acts unethically to survive."

Weeks' ethics research reveals that salespeople often behave similarly across cultures; his study includes salespeople in Mexico. Jeff Tanner, a marketing professor and associate dean of research and faculty development, is teaming with a professor in France to study French salespeople.

Ethics on the part of the sales force can also be tied to long-term relationships with customers.

"A salesperson's perception (of his organization's ethical climate) has a direct impact on his commitment to the company, and that drives up performance and how salespeople treat corporate customers and their commitment to a value-related relationship," Weeks said.

"Value" in this sense means going beyond providing a traditional product or service. It might mean knowing that a client needs a new director of marketing, realizing you know someone who could do the job, and putting the two together.

"It's showing the client more ways to better use what you are selling," Weeks said. Value also means a salesperson looks for ways to increase his share across company lines because he wants to grow his share of business within the business.

Upstanding behavior among the sales force helps combat the negative stereotype of salespeople, Weeks noted. "It is very important for us to develop students so that they can be successful as ethical persons. I want students to make informed decisions. They must live with themselves."

Dr. Bill Weeks
Dr. Bill Weeks
Baylor University