ethical sales practices

Our founder used to tell a story about an early prospect who once said, “Well which one is it, integrity or selling…because it can’t be both.”

Thankfully, some of those old stereotypes about selling have gone by the wayside. But while a sizable number of Fortune 500 companies claim “integrity” as one of their core values, in reality it remains conceptual. Most of the same companies continue to struggle with articulating and embodying integrity as a way of actually doing business. Some of the most notorious ethical failures in the world have occurred at companies that supposedly prioritized integrity.

Clearly, how (and whether) companies deliver on that core value promise varies dramatically. According to the 2021 Global Business Ethics Survey®, around 1 in 5 U.S. employees said their workplaces had a strong ethical culture in 2020, compared with 1 in 10 who felt that way in 2000. Yet the pressure to compromise standards is the highest it has ever been. Compared with 2017, U.S. employees experienced 2x more pressure in 2020.

Of course, 2020 was a significant and uniquely challenging year for many reasons. With the onset of the pandemic, remote work and disruption put a strain on controls, training and in-person management and coaching. At the same time, employees were being stretched at home and work as lines between each blurred more than ever before. As a result, companies’ ethics and compliance teams had to regroup and address a range of new concerns.

One of those concerns is “psychological safety,” creating psychologically safe environments for employees to speak their minds. This is a critical component of what we have always believed strong coaching and sales leadership cultures must include. It’s an area my colleague, Will Milano, discussed in depth in a recent Mental Selling podcast conversation with Karin Hurt of Let’s Grow Leaders.  

With all of the recent upheaval, it’s likely that many people have become disconnected with the essential core of the company, the culture and what it stands for. As Seth Godin has described in “People like us do things like us,” it’s not enough to say you’re a team or a group of colleagues. A clear set of beliefs and behaviors are what bind you together and remind you of why you show up every day.

Let’s take a closer look at how ethical sales practices and integrity affect your organization internally as well as externally and what you can do to weave the principles more tightly into the fabric of your company’s culture.

Ethical Sales Practices and Your Brand Promise

Integrity can sometimes be hard to put into words, but one way think of it is that integrity integrates the inner with the outer:

“What you see is what you get.”

“Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

When ethical sales principles like integrity are crystalized and engrained in how salespeople behave and how organizations do business, it creates impact that you can see and experience. Part of the reason for this is that operating ethically and with integrity energizes people and elevates their sense of purpose and value.

Not only is doing the right thing the right thing to do, doing the right thing is more profitable, too. The publicly-traded companies that were designated the World’s Most Ethical Companies in Ethisphere’s 2021 Ethics Index outperformed a comparable index of large cap companies by 7.1 percentage points over the past five calendar years. Ethisphere Magazine recently summarized a number of its findings and current trends related to the link between business integrity and long-term business performance.

As the research and data continually confirm, the people and firms that actually “do integrity well” develop and earn a reputation that attracts and keeps talent. When integrity is a living, breathing core value and part of the culture, it shines through — and it’s an essential ingredient for establishing trust and mutual respect between leadership and employees, buyers and sellers, and between organizations.

This is why we consistently see that, with high-integrity organizations, their brand is strong on the outside because their brand is strong on the inside.

Cultivating Ethical Sales Teams

Profit is not an evil, but it’s also not a value; it’s a motive. The question is, to what degree does that motive becomes a fixation that supersedes all other things. Posting your core values on your website isn’t what tells the world you operate with integrity. Instead, this is something that’s silently, subliminally and consistently communicated from one person to another. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tangibly influence it. You absolutely can.

To build an ethical culture, integrity has to be inextricably linked to the way you do business. That requires a mission, vision and core values that are not only clearly stated but that also articulate expectations and accountability to act them out. Think of your core values as a wayfinding mechanism for decisions, choices and behaviors. Most important, they must be lived and practiced by leadership at all levels in the organization.

Crossing a business ethical threshold can be a very slippery slope. As was noted recently in CEO World Magazine, the most basic expression of good ethics is empathizing with those who have a stake in the results of our actions. That can mean customers, but it also means your employees, suppliers, business partners and even competitors.

This is what McKinsey refers to as stakeholder capitalism — in essence, building and maintaining the trust that businesses need in order to keep doing business. This involves “recognizing that creating long-term shareholder value requires more than just focusing on shareholders.”

And certainly the way companies use technology today has to entail ethical considerations and trust factors.

This also requires ongoing communication and developing your people so that they have:

  • A clear understanding of company’s mission, vision and core values and how they specifically help carry these out daily in their role
  • The necessary skills, knowledge and experience to be highly confident and productive
  • An inner passion to deliver on the company’s brand promise by continually and creatively searching for ways to create more value for their customers and meet their needs

Salespeople and customer service teams, in particular, are a direct extension of your brand. Their actions and motives around ethics and integrity are what further validates your products/services and your company with current and future customers.

As you think about areas where you can strengthen ethical sales practices and integrity within your salespeople and your organization, a good place to start is by evaluating the degree to which your systems, processes and everyday interactions between people are inwardly driven as opposed to outwardly focused. Based on what this uncovers, you might, for example, need to:

  • Rethink and redesign your communication systems and methods to be more customer-focused.
  • Encourage people to understand and keep the needs of others front-of-mind as they make decisions, tackle problems or develop and refine processes.
  • Work on developing self-awareness and increasing Emotional Intelligence across the organization.
  • Provide coaching to help people align their personal values, behaviors and attitudes with strong organizational values and ethics.

Your Sales People Are Watching; Keep Them Engaged!

SHRM’s Special Expertise Panel said it well: “Individuals will seek employment and align themselves with organizations that view social responsibility and sustainability as core to company culture.”

People make up organizations and therefore are their moral centers. As companies struggle to retain talent, the actions (notice I didn’t say words…) of your leaders are among of the most powerful tools you have to not just keep great people but help them find deeper purpose and fulfillment in what they do every day. It helps people focus on the positive qualities in themselves and others and, as a result, they discover that being others-focused brings its own internal rewards and good feelings.

Taking care of and doing right by your employees involves far more than benefits packages and perks. Taking care of them mentally and emotionally involves making it very clear what the company they invest so many hours representing stands for, what their customers mean to them, how they make a difference in customers’ lives, and how to take those mission, vision and values statements everyone has off the wall or your website and actually translate them into daily, actionable behaviors.

Reward Ethical Behavior, Don’t Punish It 

Employees are more likely to apply ethical reasoning when their company clearly demonstrates why business ethics is important. The 2021 Global Business Ethics Survey cited above highlights the fact that more employees are reporting misconduct when they see it — and it’s a significant number. Eight in ten are now willing to report misconduct.

Even so, yet again we see resistance, as corresponding retaliation rates have skyrocketed. The GBES has been tracking this key metric for years and, in 2020, the rate of retaliation against employees for reporting wrongdoing in the U.S. was 79%, a staggering increase of 35 percentage points. Those actions speak volumes and will only serve to silence people from bringing forward concerns in the future.

The only way to improve ethical sales practices within the culture is to identify and understand the nature of misconduct within a company. It is imperative that employees feel comfortable reporting misconduct, because without said reports, it is impossible for organizations to develop effective ethics and compliance programs and to ensure that those who commit wrongdoing are held accountable.

When you truly make integrity core to your business, you’ll discover a renewed synergy among your team. They will:

  • Focus on improving customers’ lives vs. “winning a sale”
  • Clearly connect the work they’re doing to the difference it is making, which will, in turn, energize and motivate them to achieve more
  • Help foster greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the organization
  • Enthusiastically support and drive the organization’s efforts to increase social responsibility
  • Transcend individual or departmental competitiveness and instead work together in pursuit of a common purpose

Ethical Sales Practices Will Create Your Business’ Legacy

Your organization’s ethics, values and “way of doing business,” the way you treat customers and your positioning (whether overt and not) on social and moral issues are all more relevant than ever to your customers. And that means businesses can’t get away with ignoring doing the right thing anymore. Those that do will pay the price — economically, reputationally and in their ability to attract and retain talented employees.

A lack of business principles or a “moral compass” creates not only a rudderless ship but erodes trust and will inevitably derail customer relationships and the future of the business and your brand.

While doing business ethically and with principles, aka integrity, can be described in different ways by different people, the concept itself is recognized across the world. It transcends geography and culture. It bonds people and promotes meaningful and lasting business partnerships. It can drive purpose and passion like nothing else. You simply know it when you see it — and when you don’t.

Helping your people tap into a broader purpose rooted in ethics and integrity will deliver dividends beyond what ordinary businesses are able to achieve. It will release more energy, ideas and engagement. It will create a powerful and aspirational culture that stands out from all the others. And it will make a difference for your people and your customers. It calls to mind the famous line from one of my favorite movies, “Gladiator.” As Russell Crowe’s character Maximus Meridius says to his army:

“What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

About the Author
Steve Schmidt
Steve Schmidt

Executive Partner

Steve Schmidt is an Executive Partner and a member of the ownership team with Integrity Solutions. Since joining us in...
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