Ethics Quiz: Selling Tactics

Ethical dilemmas come at us in all kinds of ways, large and small, with a surprising frequency. This week, we’re looking at five “everyday ethics” problems, presenting one each day. Think them over, decide what you believe is the best course of action, and then compare your views with mine, which you’ll find at the bottom of this post. Be sure to comment if you disagree. Here’s today’s problem:

I work at a bank with a lot of older clients who own CDs, which yield very little interest these days. When it’s time to roll them over, I’m supposed to make a big pitch for other investment products we offer, with special emphasis on deferred annuities, which provide more profit to the bank. The main benefit of annuities (delayed taxes) is of little use to clients on limited fixed incomes with little or no tax liability, and I think it’s a bad choice for them. I usually don’t even mention the annuity to these clients. I think I’m doing the ethical thing, but my wife is worried I’ll get fired if my boss ever finds out.


Here’s my view:

Sales jobs get tricky fast when you don’t believe in the product you’re selling. You’re faced with competing ethical principles, and it’s not easy to sort through them. In your case, you’re accepting a pay check to do a specific job and you’re not doing it. That’s hardly ethical. On the other hand, talking your clients into a bad investment decision is unethical, too. Deception (pretending the product is right for them) is almost always problematic. You’d be on more solid ground if you just presented the array of products your bank offers without pushing the annuity, but if you’re under orders to sell more annuities, that doesn’t work either.

Here’s what I’d do if I were you: I’d go to my boss and explain my concerns with annuities, making a detailed and fact-supported case for why they’re the wrong investment for this class of people. I’d propose an alternative; presumably there’s another bank product that is more appropriate. Then I’d listen carefully to what my boss says. Maybe I’ll find out I’m wrong about the annuities, or maybe he’ll shrug and tell me to do what I think is right.

But understand that if he insists you push the annuities and the only reason is bank profit, your only ethical option is to find another job. The faster, the better. Unfortunately, that won’t help the clients because presumably you’ll be replaced with a more willing shill. But short of picketing outside the bank, there’s not much else you can do.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Selling Tactics

  1. I agree but you would have to be quite confident in your job security, your belief about the annuities and your prospects for finding another job. I don’t sell products but occasionally promote events through publicity. As I hard as I may try, somehow the promotions work only if I believe in what I am doing.

  2. Sounds uncomfortably similar to the bank loan agents who were rewarded for the quantity or mortgages rather the quality. The banks were able to offload the risk by packaging and selling them to investors. But the customers ended up losing their homes. And the investors ended up losing their pants. And the country as a whole ended up with a financial system collapse and a huge bailout.

    So your ethical dilemma is more than an educational exercise. It was faced by frontline loan agents every day as they continued to push adjustable rate mortgages unto people who did not understand the consequences.

    There are other examples as well. Many hospital management organizations push doctors to administer expensive tests that the doctor believes are medically unjustified.

    So this is really a big question with lots of read-world implications.

    The question is how to fix the problem. I’d agree advising the boss of your concerns is the first step. If that is unsuccessful, you may continue to work as long as you ignore the unethical instructions. At the same time, though, evil need not be tolerated. Advise your congressman, your local newspaper, your professional organization, etc. Campaign alone or with others to expose the problem and find ways to fix it.

    The best way to fix a widespread unethical business practice is by law. A law releases the pressure upon one business to follow his competitors unethical practices or be driven out of business. If it is forbidden to his competitors, then he is no longer forced to follow their bad example.

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