Is 'ethical sales' an oxymoron?

Jo Ellen
Jo Ellen Jonsson Assoc. Professor Professional Sales Dept. Weber State University

Standard-Examiner contributor
March 31, 2015

I am frequently asked which classes I teach at Weber State University. When I reply “I teach ethics to sales students,” I often see a quick smile and the response, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I respond to the inquirer that our students are taught to meet the needs of their clients foremost and that includes having integrity and building trust in the relationship.

The ethical discussions in my class range from individual ethical dilemmas, ethical business culture, and how to manage sales reps for ethical conduct. Each person in sales has to decide their own moral code. Our parents, friends, and teachers play a large role in the development of our ethical standards. If a parent tutors a child on what is right and wrong, praises the ethical actions and disciplines the bad, then the child’s ethical compass is set. What if parents themselves do not behave ethically? I read a news article about a man who was caught robbing a store while his 7-year-old son was in the car. Does this child have a chance to learn right from wrong?

A business’s ethical culture is affected by sales management. If ethics is important to the upper echelon and ethical expectations are voiced regularly in meetings and training, then employees will most often follow their example. What about that bad apple who comes to a company and rises to the top very quickly because of their high sales performance? When it is discovered that this sales rep is lying to the customer, or misrepresenting the product, what would you do? Give a gentle verbal reprimand? Fire immediately? How management handles the situation will affect the behavior of other sales reps for a long time. My recommendation is to gather all the information, talk to the offender in private, and make fair and consistent decisions. Employees most often will do what is expected and/or allowed.

There are many tools to help you manage for ethical conduct. First, develop case studies of situations that frequently come up in your specific sales field. Read the case studies together in meetings and discuss ways to handle these circumstances. Incorporating case studies and role plays in the initial training sessions will let the employee know from the start what type of behavior is expected in your company. Second, don’t be afraid to talk about ethics. Use positive phrases such as “integrity and honesty are important here.” Developing strong relationships with clients must be built on trust and reliability. Expecting your sales reps to deal on this level will boost their sales for the long term.

On the flip side, if you have a cutthroat atmosphere where reps are in fear of not making their numbers for the month, they may turn to unethical practices to meet your requirements. Also be careful with prizes and enticements. Make sure your employees are using ethical means to win fairly or it can be a huge demotivater for those “doing it the right way.”

Most of all, lead by example. Whether you think they are watching or not, sales reps look to their leaders as an example. Be fair and consistent and let them know ethical conduct is critical to you.

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Jonsson is an associate professor of professional sales at Weber State University.