Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Influence of Moral Philosophy on Retail Salespeople's Ethical Perceptions

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Influence of Moral Philosophy on Retail Salespeople's Ethical Perceptions

Article excerpt

The relatively minimal literature on ethics in a retail selling context indicates that retail sales personnel perceive that their job creates ethical dilemmas. However, what drives those beliefs is virtually unknown. Investigations in non-retailing venues have found that employees' moral philosophy (or ideology) influences whether they view a particular situation, action, or behavior as unacceptable (ethically inappropriate). The present study extends previous retail sales ethics research by examining the impact of retail salespersons' moral philosophy on their perceptions of situations that are potentially ethically troublesome. Findings reveal some evidence that moral philosophy does indeed have an effect on retail salespeople's ethical beliefs. The impact of these results on the consumer is brought out through a discussion of the various implications from the vantage point of consumer welfare.

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Employee propriety, decorum, fiscal and personal rectitude, and societal concern seemingly have become watchwords for many business organizations. Accordingly, firms have established mechanisms, such as codes of ethics, ethics training, ethics chaplains, and anonymous tip lines for reporting employee misconduct, that are directed at increasing the likelihood that decorous behavior will permeate the company. Notwithstanding the ethics juggernaut, corporate malfeasance continues to plague business.

For instance, witness the misprision in multinationals Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen, the impact of which was inimical for numerous stakeholders (Roberts and Thomas 2002). Or consider a higher-level Coca Cola manager's falsifying the results of a test market so that Burger King would be induced to spend $30 million in preparation for its selling Frozen Coke (The Economist 2003). Also, recall the recent securities pandemic engendered by use of questionable trading practices in the mutual fund industry (e.g., Dwyer and Borrus 2003). Of course, high-level employees are not the only ones to engage in misconduct. Subalterns at all organizational levels and in all functional departments have opportunity to partake in questionable business practices.

One department that is frequently maligned for ethical malfeasance is marketing. A major reason for this negativity is that marketing tends to be the most visible or conspicuous department to the public at large (Murphy and Laczniak 1981). As examples, fictitious pricing, deceptive advertising, and false sales pitches from sales personnel often become cannon fodder for aggrieved customers and the media. And the costs associated with such practices are widespread for the marketer. For instance, Laczniak and Murphy (1985) aver that unethical marketing decisions can engender considerable personal (e.g., employee termination, low morale), organizational (e.g., adverse word-of-mouth promotion, low employee morale), and societal costs (e.g., reduced perceived trust in business, increased consumer vigilance). After all, ethics functions as a form of social control, something that is especially critical to customers, salespeople, and the organization (Trawick et al. 1991).

One area in marketing where ethical misconduct can easily occur is the selling arena. In fact, one study has found that unethical behavior is positively related to salesperson performance (Howe, Hoffman, and Hardigree 1994). In another investigation, 39% of respondents felt that salespeople could not be trusted (Vitell and Muncy 1992). The very nature of the sales position--the buyer-seller dyad--fosters a "laboratory of ethical scenarios" (Wotruba 1990). Moreover, Caywood and Laczniak (1986) argue that ethical conflicts and choices inhere in the selling arena, particularly because sales personnel tend to be under pressure to achieve their quotas, lack close supervision, have an inadequate job support system, and need to make decisions on the spot. Also, salespeople's role in trying to satisfy their managers and customers--essentially two masters--simultaneously, as well as their organizational and affiliative estrangement, could conduce to engaging in unethical conduct (Dubinsky et al. …

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