(This is an reprint by special request of my blog from July 6th, 2007)

For most of us, knowing the difference between right and wrong is pretty clear, but sometimes doing the right thing is hard to do. Or, let’s say we are challenged to make the right choices.

Our government helps us out with our decision making process about right and wrong by making laws that specifically tell us what is right and what is wrong. It is illegal to shoplift. It is a legal requirement to properly label the ingredients on food products. While there is an occasional debate about the meaning of laws, we generally understand what is acceptable and what is not. Conveniently, these laws are enforced.

Ethical behavior is a slightly different matter, since ethics are established and maintained by the culture and they are not always written down or specifically communicated. If you find a wallet at a gas station that has $100 cash in it, the ethical thing to do is to contact the owner and return the wallet with the cash. If you go through the checkout line at a department store and the “new” cashier gives you back too much change, the ethical choice is to tell the cashier about the error. The challenge with ethics is that you are in charge of managing your own code of ethics.

Sales people deal with ethical challenges all the time. Maybe you have faced issues like these:

– Should I tell the customer about my product’s quality problems?
– My customer’s purchase order had the wrong price on the order (it was higher than what you quoted). Should I tell them?
– My expense account is to be used for selling expenses only, but how would my company know the difference between a personal expense and a customer expense?
– Your product was not made to the customer’s specification, but was shipped anyway. Do you tell them or do hope that they don’t notice?

Your own code of ethics helps make the little decisions easier along with the big ones. When you always tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything; it is easier this way. When you do the ethical thing, you have little regret or remorse about your choices.

So, what does a sales person’s code of ethics look like? Here are a few ideas:

– Always tell the truth.
– Don’t lie through omission; tell the whole story including the bad parts.
– Always do what you promise; if you can, deliver more than what you promise.
– When you fail to deliver on a commitment, tell the customer immediately. Don’t wait for them to find out.
– When in doubt about a choice, seek advice from a mentor (I.E. someone you admire and is ethical).
– Put your promises in writing to hold yourself accountable; this will also document your good behavior when you deliver what you promised.
– Treat your customer like you would like to be treated.

Do the right thing.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2008 All rights reserved.

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  1. MUCH easier said than done – especially if your management and/or subordinates take a “short term” approach and don’t approve of the results of your behavior. It affects their paychecks too! Any suggestions you can offer from experience?

    Also, is it necessarily unethical if Aquafina doesn’t publish their nutritional facts on their bottles? Against the law – yes. Unethical?…I don’t think it is – after all it’s just water.

  2. Brian,

    I agree that staying true to your own ethical code can be very hard.

    If you are working for an ethical company. I think your should quit. Why hang out with thieves or liars? If you do stay, people will think that you are one of them.

    If you boss is unethical but the company is good, you should blow the whistle on the boss. A good firm will not want an unethical manager hand around and damage their image. There is a risk of retaliation when you do this, but it is the right thing.

    Aquafina is obeying the law as I understand it. Some bottled water makers do disclose more info than others which makes them look more ethical.


  3. Brian

    Great insight. I definitely agree that people should avoid a company (or even parts of an industry) if they feel it will consistently conflict with their own moral code. It will make life miserable for them and they’ll end up leaving the company anyway. Thanks for the posting..

  4. Brian,

    Sometimes the choices are difficult.


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