Filthy Money: When Selling Creates Moral Conflict

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“Have you ever encountered an ethical dilemma and how did you handle the situation?”

I will answer that question as a presenter next week at a Virginia science and tech high school as part of their ethics day. The organizers have allotted me 20 minutes. My biggest challenge will be knowing where to begin.

One topic I am certain to cover: situations in which personal ethics and sales outcomes conflict. I expect that my discussion will expose plenty of inconsistencies in what I will and won’t do, and I have every confidence that these students will challenge me on my decisions. As author David Quammen wrote, “not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.”

But most high school students have not had to meet a demanding revenue target or “make quota.” They can afford to be idealistic. And I hope they are. This is a good age, and a safe place, to learn and explore “what is the right thing to do?”

I plan to share a poignant example: In 2011, Marine Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer was conflicted over selling his company’s product, a sophisticated rifle scope, to the Pakistani military. “We are taking the best gear, the best technology on the market to date and giving it to guys known to stab us in the back . . . These are the same people killing our guys,” he explained.

If you followed this story, Meyer worked for BAE Systems when he refused to pursue the deal with the Pakistanis. BAE fired him, and Meyer sued the company. In December, 2011, BAE announced that the parties had settled the dispute out of court.

I will follow that story with two examples of my own ambivalence in professional selling:

1. Cigarette manufacturing

Cigarette manufacturing is a huge part of Virginia’s economy. The Philip Morris Richmond Manufacturing Center alone occupies 200 acres, with six connected buildings totaling 1.6 million square feet. An outsider cannot appreciate the size of the US tobacco industry until he or she drives on I-95 through Richmond, and smells ambient tobacco leaf particles flowing into the car’s air ducts. The huge network of suppliers—from production machinery to carton printers to filter manufacturers to warehousing—have similar logistics challenges to other manufacturers.

For years, the technology I sold to companies in the tobacco value chain helped them manufacture and distribute a legal-lethal product better, faster, and cheaper. Not a rapport builder in the health-care vertical. “My marquis customer? Sure . . . are you familiar with Marlboro cigarettes? . . .” I overcame my dissonance because I rationalized that cigarette smoking is voluntary. But that required suspending another scientific fact – that nicotine is non-addictive and that cigarette manufacturers don’t malevolently tinker with its concentration in their end products.

Had I stood on principal and refused to help cigarette manufacturers, my competitors would have gladly filled the void. Could I subtract tobacco-related revenue from my account portfolio and still make quota? Answer: no – not in Virginia.

2. Firearm manufacturing

One of my prospects was a large handgun manufacturer with a single-location factory in my sales territory. I decided not to call on the company. Unlike the first example, I didn’t need the revenue to make quota. It’s legal to manufacture and distribute firearms in the US, but my objection was the lethal purpose and outcome for the product. A product that my company’s technology would help produce more efficiently. For me, it would have been indescribably strange to walk the production floor, looking at bins of forged parts and Quality Control test bays, knowing the use of the finished product. I imagined speaking with the same detached operational terms for other my other manufacturing customers, but not being able to escape knowing the ultimate purpose of the precision and quality was to deliver bullets better. Just writing about it still makes me queasy. Call me a wimp. I can handle it.

Was my idealism fair to my employer? Probably not. I referred the gun manufacturer to a third-party reseller who didn’t share my compunction.

In less than 10 years, many of the students in my session will face similar quandaries. How will they respond, for example, if an employer asks them to sell products to people with impaired decision-making abilities, as described in an August, 2015 Washington Post article, How Companies Make Millions off Lead Poisoned, Poor Blacks? The practice is borderline illegal, with the emphasis on borderline. Laws have not fully caught up with an obvious moral wrong, underscoring why ethics matter, and why it’s so important that discussions about ethical choices in one’s career begin in high school – or earlier. The biggest mistake people make about ethics is denying that conflicts can occur.

When quotas and revenue goals are on the line, having the courage to be selective about the intended purpose for one’s products and services can be difficult. These vignettes illustrate how complicated the choices can be, and twenty minutes hardly leaves time to dig beneath the surface.

The most important learning opportunity for me will result when the students question my answers.

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