Ethics in Sales and Marketing

Increased scrutiny of corporate actions in today’s business climate puts pressure on all facets of corporate structure to adhere to ethical business practices founded on principles that are honest, fair and transparent to the stakeholders. The sales and marketing profession is a driving force in our economy and should not be left untouched when scrutinizing ethical issues. A society where the consumer is confident of honest trade is one that will prosper.

While some would fear that the sales and marketing department would be the last place to go looking for ethical guideposts, we could venture that this should be the first place to build a culture with values that create a climate for sound business decision making and the practice of ethical behavior. The public face of corporations is often painted by brand identity, marketing messages delivered via various mediums and the sales representatives who deal directly with the buying public. With an aligned, sound code of ethics for marketing, sales and customer service, organizations would theoretically build consumer confidence and shareholder value.

Of course, theory doesn’t spell success. An important ingredient in developing an effective ethical culture is through strong exemplary leadership committed to these values. There are many examples of companies that weakly espouse a code of ethics through lip service but in reality, short term results are valued more highly than a longer term strategy and commitment to doing what is right. Unfortunately, some organizations are led by individuals who have given in to the pressures imposed by weightier shareholder centric rather than customer centric values. This ultimately has a bearing on how sales and marketing departments are managed and in part defines the overall corporate culture.

A Ten Point Plan for Emphasizing Ethics in the Sales & Marketing Culture:

1. Create a written code of ethics specific to the sales and marketing department. If you already have a written code of ethics, be sure it is widely communicated. While some companies have their sales and marketing staff sign their code of ethics, in reality this is only a preliminary step in communicating the value placed on ethics by the organization. The following steps will help transition from a written code to a code of practice.

2. Define the parameters for managerial decision making that will form the acceptable boundaries for managerial actions. According to Hosmer in Ethics of Management (McGraw Hill 2003), there is a balancing act that needs to take into consideration ethics, economics and legal concerns in the managerial decision making process.

3. Draft sales and marketing scenarios based on past experiences and use them as a basis for discussion at staff meetings. Discussion of ethical issues without finger pointing will help create a culture of open dialogue and stimulate ideas and valuable thought process.

4. Bring sales and marketing practitioners together during the planning phase to discuss the pros and cons of marketing campaigns and sales activities from an ethical viewpoint.

5. Require marketing proposals and sales campaign documents to spell out the ethical considerations of the author(s). Creating transparency begins with the creative process.

6. Implement a privacy policy and publish a privacy statement. Inform you clients and prospects about how you collect their data and what you use it for. Allow prospects and clients to opt-in and never sell or give out their information without their permission.

7. Use professional assessment tools to assist in sound hiring decisions. Professional assessment tools are one of the necessary components in the hiring process. Others include using scenario type, ethically based questions during the interview process and conducting thorough background checks.

8. Establish due process for dealing with any violation of your code of ethics. Without due process, your code of ethics could be flawed and unenforceable. Spell out in advance how due process would be accomplished and who is responsible for the jurisdiction.

9. Reward sound judgment and recognize ethical behavior that exemplifies the culture you wish to create. As with any type of reward and recognition, the best reinforcement of desired behavior is timely and applicable to the moment. Personal one-to-one acknowledgement by management is very important. Public recognition within your organization in newsletters and at staff meetings in equally important.

10. Practice exemplary leadership. Last but not least, leadership by example is one of the most powerful and proven methods of building a team that lives by a code. The price of exemplary leadership is high, but affordable, and the investment you make as a leader pays rewards that are immeasurable.


President & CEO, Sales and Marketing Executives International, Inc. President, Old Clayburn Marketing & Management Services, Inc.

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