The Sales Profession as a Subculture: Implications for Ethical Decision Making

Journal of Business Ethics 142 (3):549-565 (2017)
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Salespeople have long been considered unique employees. They tend to work apart from each other and experience little daily contact with supervisors and other organizational employees. Additionally, salespeople interact with customers in an increasingly complex and multifunctional environment. This provides numerous opportunities for unethical behavior which has been chronicled in the popular press as well as academic research. Much of the research in sales ethics has relied on conceptual foundations which focus on individual and organizational influencers on ethical decision making. While significant, contributors to this research suggest that alternative theoretical perspectives and methods of investigation should be utilized and call for more research on the status of professional selling as a whole. We answer this call by exploring an alternative and complementary perspective based on the theory of occupational choice, social learning, and work groups to gain insight on how the sales profession evolves as its own subculture that extends beyond individual and organizational boundaries. First, we discuss the characteristics of the sales profession and empirically examine the relationship between typical individual and organizational factors and sales professionals’ perceptions of ethical behavior. Second, we offer a theoretical explanation that our findings may be due to how salespeople choose and are socialized into the subculture of the sales profession. Third, we examine this theoretical perspective via qualitative in-depth interviews with experienced sales professionals. Results and implications are discussed in terms of a sales profession code of ethics and future research directions.



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