I am a sales person for a large tire distributor and my accounts are businesses. I was close to a significant (for my own quota and for our company) sale of tires for a fleet of 60 trucks at a local company when the purchasing agent of that company surprised me. He gave me the specifications for his personal truck and asked that I incorporate the cost of a set of new tires and wheels for his truck into my bid, but to bury them in such a way that they were not visible. He would get new tires and wheels for his truck and I would get the significant order. To cover his tires and wheels, the bid would be slightly more than it would otherwise be, but he agreed to sign off on the deal. He said this was a requirement for the sale and was standard practice in the industry.
Our company is an ethical company and I try to be an ethical sales person as well, but we really need this deal. What should I do?
West Coast Tire Distributor
Thanks for writing. Unfortunately, the situation in front of you is not unique. Many sales transactions, in a broad range of industries, are riddled with kickbacks or requests for them. Clearly, the purchasing agent’s request is wrong. It is doubtful that his employer would approve of indirectly paying to outfit his truck. And his claim about standard industry practice seems untrue since the request would not have surprised you (given your sales experience) if it were.
Even if his employer would approve and/or these types of practices are standard to the industry, unfair competition and corruption are promoted by such actions. Over time, the size, value, and magnitude of personal gifts replace price and quality as the driving factors in purchasing decisions. For this reason, many industries and/or companies are moving to eradicate these practices.
My advice is to not start down this path. Uphold your company’s ethical reputation and stick with your own convictions. Stick with your guns, and over time other purchasing agents will know to never even broach this subject with you. Do the opposite and the size of future requests really will be a surprise!
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University
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