The Ethics Coach on Misrepresentation

Gael O'Brien

Do you have an ethical dilemma? Write to The Ethics Coach at

Q: When answering the phone, is it ethical for a sole proprietor to change his voice and pretend to be an assistant so his company appears larger and more professional? What separates that, theoretically, from behavior like renting a nicer suit than you can afford?

Misrepresenting your business by faking an accent or using other smoke-and-mirrors tactics is not only unethical but stupid, and guaranteed to backfire. As soon as clients figure it out (and they will), they'll stampede in the opposite direction.

Instead of relying on lies, sole proprietors should set up networks and alliances to increase service capacity. In the case you describe, consider funneling calls through a budget-friendly (but real) off-site assistant.

By comparison, dressing more expensively than you can afford in that moment isn't a misrepresentation. It is an investment in yourself, with accountability to your credit card. Dressing for success can be a confidence-building placebo. However, once you are at the table, trust is earned by relevant, value-driven ideas that demonstrate that a customer's needs and goals are being heard and addressed.

Stock Issues
Q: I'm a retailer, and I frequently receive samples from companies. If I intend to stock the product, is it OK to sell some samples while I wait for my order to come in? And what if I don't plan to carry the product--or any product from that company? In that case, I don't believe it's OK to sell the sample, but what can I do with it?

Don't let this issue of samples crowd out your focus on building and maintaining strong business relationships. Retailers' biggest stakeholders are suppliers and customers.

Why alienate the people who keep you in business by selling what you get for free? To lighten your load, offer customers free samples of products on order, and donate samples you don't want to appropriate nonprofits. Also, tell suppliers you would rather they didn't send samples without asking you first; then, accept only what you need to make a purchasing decision.

Carbon Copy
Q: I work for a company that processes very simple but very profitable reports. As an entrepreneurial college student who just rebuilt the company's hardware, I think I can do this entire business by myself. Are there ethical issues in leaving a company to become the competition?

I applaud your confidence, but things that seem very simple can deliver a knockout punch. The way you handle these potential ethical and legal issues will have a direct impact on your reputation--a hugely important asset as you build your career.

I asked two experts to weigh in on your question. Damion Robinson, a corporate attorney with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Criterion Law Group, says that while you can replicate the business you are working for, you can't use proprietary information like confidential business processes or client lists. If you signed a contract when you began work, check to see if it specifies noncompete or confidentiality requirements.

Even if you weren't asked to sign an agreement, says Thomas White, Hilton Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, it doesn't mean you will be respected for doing what you are considering. Starting your career by copying the processes of a company you just worked for sends a message about how you operate that may curtail opportunities down the road. White advises talking to your boss, as burning bridges and incurring ill will are not the best ways to launch a career.

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