Keeping Us Honest: Researcher Looks at Unethical Sales Behaviors in Business

By Rosa Vivanco

Ning Li

No one wants to do business with a company known for being unethical. Many times this bad reputation can stem from the behaviors of the sales people within the company. Is it possible to reduce, or perhaps even prevent, unethical sales behaviors?

Mason marketing professor Ning Li, along with William H. Murphy at the University of Saskatchewan, investigated whether specific variables reduce unethical sales behaviors (USBs). Their research, “A Three-Country Study of Unethical Sales Behaviors,” published in the Journal of Business Ethics, examined six different types of unethical behaviors among business-to-business salespeople of a multinational company’s sales force in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Three of the behaviors they asked about impacted companies while the other three impacted consumers.

The study revealed that variables such as commitment, relationship to sales manager, and need for achievement affect salespeople’s tendency to engage in unethical sales behaviors differently in each country. Their research also found that the level of individualism and education on business ethics and customer orientation for each country can be used to anticipate similarities and differences in the USBs between countries.

“We found that our cultural values influence our unethical sales behaviors,” says Li. “The U.S. and Canada are more individualistic, while Mexico is more collectivistic. This impacts the types of USBs salespeople from those countries are more likely to participate in. Salespeople in Canada and the United States are more likely to engage in minor USBs, while salespeople in Mexico are more likely to engage in major USBs affecting consumers.”

Why is analyzing the factors that can affect unethical behavior and the effect of culture on USBs important? Li and Murphy believe that given the global footprints of companies today, there is a tremendous need to understand whether the dynamics that reduce unethical sales behaviors are consistent across countries. Companies must consider the implications of having universal versus country-specific ethics codes and training. On a micro level, this research can inform sales managers or company executives on what they can do to help reduce unethical behaviors.

“We found that committed sales employees will be less likely to commit USBs, especially in the United States. So it tells sales managers that if they want to reduce USBs, they want to work on making sure their staff feels committed to the company and what they do,” says Li. “Also, many companies may assume they need to pay their employees fixed salaries to cut down on USBs, but we find that it doesn’t affect USBs as many may have predicted. We also show that demographics have no effect on committing USBs, and this encourages managers not to profile or stereotype employees.

“Everyone wants to do business with an ethical sales person. You typically find the marketing, advertising, and sales profession at the bottom of lists ranking most ethical professions. We want to try to help the business world reduce USBs so those professions, companies, and all of society will benefit. ”

This article originally appeared on the School of Management homepage in a slightly different form.

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