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Ethics, Business, and Sales

I teach a course in Consulting Skills in a “small New Haven, CT” Graduate School. The students are comprised of academically bright students and business professionals pursuing their Masters Degree for their personal career development purposes. One of the topics that came up recently in class was the concept of ethics.

A student wanted to know about the propriety of disclosing information to management she had come across about a colleague of hers that contradicted what the colleague claimed on a resume and professional biography. The conversation in class became rather animated with people taking polarized positions. We did not reach a consensus, though the conversation was illuminating. Among the points made:

  1. A variation of the Mother’s admonition, “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
  2. Tattling is umbecoming and says more about the tattler than the person being tattled on.
  3. Whistleblowers should be celebrated and acknowledged, not shamed or silenced.
  4. Just do your job and let the chips fall where they may/mind your own business.
  5. What is the benefit to the organization? What is the benefit to the individual doing the sharing of information?
  6. The organization has a right to know and the consequences are outside the control of the person sharing the information and should not factor into the decision to share.

    Perceiving outcomes is often difficult when choosing between ethical options.

    Perceiving outcomes is often difficult when choosing between ethical options.

The student who brought the issue up in class further wanted to know if the answer or response changes if the discussion changes based on whether it is a discussion about an internal employee or if a vendor were to share the information about a competitor. That is an area that I felt more comfortable addressing.

Sales people and consultant/vendors will occasionally try to bolster their own standing wih a prospect or customer by sharing secrets or insights about a competitor that degrades that competitor or minimizes their background, experiences, or marketing claims. To that point, I shared with the class:

It is a bad idea. It rarely serves the goal of improving that company’s standing.

There is the ethics issue to be discussed, but what occurs to me is that there is also a business issue that also needs to be considered. Stating what the company I represent stands for, sharing my own experiences, connecting my own background to the needs of the situation or prospect/client/customer, etc. are all worthwile pursuits. However, taking steps to knock a competitor causes the customer to wonder why, whether what is being shared is objective or an ad hominem attack, and creates ill will and distrust. It is always better to sell on the basis of YOUR strengths and not on the weaknesses of the competition. The prospect/customer can make the comparison on their own when presented with the facts and reach their own conclusion.

As a salesperson, it is appropriate to suggest that references or testimonials be checked in the same way that it is done before hiring a job applicant. It is not necessary to besmirch a competitor and accuse them of lying or of being untruthful.

David Zahn