Build a strong ethical sales culture in four steps

Maureen Shaffer

Good Promotional Practices

Ethics is a broad field dominated by brilliant minds in academic institutions. We are all strapped for time and are constantly bombarded by information. How do you do the right thing?

Watch the first 1.5 minutes of Warren Buffett answer a Harvard MBA’s question, “How do you instill ethical leadership throughout your organization?”, and you will have your answer.

However, translating Warren Buffett’s Newspaper Test into the minds and memories of the rest of your sales organization is more complicated. You know that you need policies, procedures and training which in-house folks handle. And, most people want to do the right thing. Since business ethics is really about making the right decisions, here are four steps you can use to build a strong ethical sales culture:

1. Hire ethical sales personnel

Prevention is worth a pound of cure. Making ethics part of your standard interview gives you important information about your potential employee. It also lets that applicant know how seriously ethics are taken at your company.

• Present ethical scenarios during interviews that have no perfect answer.

• Check those references and ask each one about the applicant’s ethical behavior.

• “Have a third-party vendor run social media background searches on potential employees.” from Mark Bisard at AMEX during the Dow-Jones Global Compliance conference.

“Making ethics part of your standard interview gives you important information about your potential employee.”

2. Practice ethics at every sales training, at least quarterly

Rulebooks (aka policy manuals) rarely cover the situations encountered in the field every day. It is up to the sales leaders to make this relevant and meaningful to your salesforce.

• Solicit ethically-challenging scenarios from your reps.

• Choose two or three people to role play the scenario in front of the group.

• Take a vote afterwards as to if it was over the line or not. Ask why and discuss.

• Rinse, repeat. This can also be conducted virtually.

3. Reward ethics and questioning, monthly

In addition to those wonderful sales success stories everyone loves to discuss and broadcast, solicit ethical success stories.

Elevate ethics to the same importance as compensation and company revenue.

• Have a rep share a personal story or a story about what they saw or heard a competitor do and have them offer their opinion.

• Encourage discussion and close with your summary, thanking him/her for their contribution to the ethics and reputation of the company.

“Elevate ethics to the same importance as compensation and company revenue”

4. Reinforce the penalties and the personal impact, beyond the policies (WIIFM)

• Their personal reputation, especially with negative news, will travel far and wide in a closely cross-linked industry like pharmaceuticals, medical devices and biotech.

• Their reputation is strongly tied to their ongoing and upward earning potential.

• And, yes, remind them that they can lose their jobs, even the top reps. Here is a group of CEOs discussing healthcare compliance and termination of top sales representatives for questionable behavior.

Remember, your sales representatives will learn by your actions—both what you do and do not do—versus what you say. So, show them that ethics matters from the first interview, keep it front of mind with regular discussions on par with driving revenue and live it for them. By implementing the four above steps, you will protect your company’s reputation, your own sales leadership job and those of your sales representatives.

Excellent Resources

1. Warren Buffett on Ethics: “We Can’t Afford to Lose Reputation” (

2. Slides 9 and 10 on the Ethical Imagination from Laurent Ledoux (

3. 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Off-Label Sales Compliance

About the author:

Maureen Shaffer is the Vice President of Life Sciences for Prolifiq. She focuses on providing mobile software and solutions to help sales and marketing professional drive sales, save money and comply with the increasingly complex web of regulations governing healthcare practitioner (HCP) communications. She is also the Executive Editor and Publisher of, the collaborative and cross-functional blogging site for medical devices (medtech) and pharma covering promotional best practices in the increasingly litigious environment and runs a GPP LinkedIn group at Additionally, Maureen spent 20 years in marketing at cardiovascular medical device companies, mostly emerging growth and startups.

Reach Maureen:

@maureenshaffer on Twitter

What’s your top tip for building a strong ethical sales culture?