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Promoting Multilevel Marketers?

DILEMMA

I have been offered a position as an advertising writer for a company that does marketing for multilevel marketing business owners. I’ve read a lot of shady stuff about MLMs. I talked about this in the interview, and the company said that they are taking a high-road approach to it, screening the MLMs for honesty, etc., and that if I ever feel like anything I am asked to do is unethical, to let them know.

I disagree with the practices of dishonest MLMs completely. I wouldn’t like to do MLMs myself, but if other people want to hook up with one that is reputable, I guess that’s their choice.

Is it ethical for me to create persuasive advertising content for this kind of business? And more so, when it’s not the kind of business system that I would choose for myself? If I do some amazing advertising for an MLM that ends up helping to recruit more people, and the system turns out to be fraudulent, am I ethically guilty for that result?

Wondering

RESPONSE

Dear “Trapped,”

Thanks for writing. Employees involved in almost any type of client-service oriented work (advertising, law, accounting, consulting, etc.) will often face the dilemma of whether or not the services they provide may help promote (directly or not) a product or service that is questionable on moral grounds. Navigating this territory is tricky, especially since your definition of “ethical” may be different from your prospective employer’s.

Some firms actually allow employees to decline to work on specific projects on the grounds of conscientious objection. However, this allowance is typically made only once or a few times during an employee’s tenure. Beyond this, it is incumbent upon the employees to switch to a firm that has clients they can serve wholeheartedly. So, one important issue is the percentage that MLM clients represent in terms of firm revenue. If MLM clients make up a sizable percentage of the firm’s revenue, your freedom to decline a client engagement will be quite limited.

Another way to look at this issue is to ask yourself if your adverse reaction to MLMs is too general. Yes, there are MLMs whose representatives lie, engage in cheap forms of manipulation, and take advantage of people who are vulnerable. Yet, all MLMs are not the same. Perhaps you could actually be a positive change agent by working on the advertising copy used by some MLMs. Someone will end up writing the ad copy. A strong argument can be made that it might as well be someone who has a conscience about doing it on good terms. Asking your prospective employer for the specific screening criteria used would also be helpful to see you are in agreement about defining the term “ethical.”

If, at the end of the day, you are still in strong disagreement with the practices of all MLMs and cannot support them in any way, I think you are ethically obligated to decline the job offer. If you take the job, you would be betraying your own convictions, and your new employer would likely not get your best effort since your heart will not be in your work.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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