Opinion

Shady sales tactics aren't just a problem for consumers — they're a problem for young workers, too

The habits these young people learn — what counts as acceptable, what counts as professional, what counts as good or even decent customer service — are very often being learned in jobs at call centres and other low-level sales jobs.

Junior employees are first and foremost eager to fit in. This makes them particularly vulnerable to pressure

The habits these young people learn — what counts as acceptable, what counts as professional, what counts as good or even decent customer service — are very often being learned in jobs at call centres and other low-level sales jobs. (Shutterstock)

A recent CBC Go Public report seemed to confirm what many Canadians have long claimed from firsthand experience: companies such as Bell and Rogers use aggressive and misleading sales tactics to squeeze every last dollar out of telecom customers.

Employees and former employees of Canada's biggest telcos reported being pressured to upsell, to mislead customers, and that they have been subject to dubious incentive schemes. This story is alarming in its own right, and Canadians should demand better. And indeed, the CRTC has launched an inquiry on the allegations and plans to host a series of hearings next month. The big telecom companies, for their part, have rejected the allegations and say they have no tolerance for unethical sales practices.

The telecom industry is, of course, far from unique in terms of its use of unsavoury sales tactics. Canada's big banks found themselves in an uncomfortable spotlight last year when a different CBC investigation found that pressure to upsell and even lie to customers was rampant in that industry.

That story hit home for me when one of my best students in Ryerson's Bachelor of Commerce program came to me to tell me she had quit her summer job — her first real job — at one of the big banks, in light of continual pressure from her boss to sell financial instruments to retail customers, regardless of customer need or comprehension.

But the big issue here isn't only about banking or about telecom, as important as those two industries are. A major issue here also has to do with youth — in particular, the young Canadians who are so often the ones being pressured to engage in unethical, and sometimes illegal, sales practices.

Consider: estimates vary, but consensus seems to be that roughly half of call-centre employees are under 30. And turnover in these junior sales jobs is high, implying that a lot of young people flow through these kinds of positions. It's not hard to understand why young people are attracted to these jobs: they are white-collar positions, entry-level at many large companies and yet, they don't require much in the way of specific skills. 

Vulnerable to pressure

There are two reasons to be especially worried about young workers in the context of shady sales tactics.

First, there is good reason to believe that young workers are especially vulnerable. Junior employees are first and foremost eager to fit in, to be part of the team. This almost certainly makes them vulnerable to pressure. They also tend to lack tenure, and know that the alternative to loyalty is the exit. They may find their knowledge and even their values discounted by a boss who confidently explains to them "how things work in the real world."

When you're the new kid, and the boss says, "Look, it's fine…that's how things are done around here," who are you to argue? Few have the courage to say "no," and few have the support systems that would let them head for the door.

Second, we should worry that so many of the employees in these stories are young employees because for many young adults, their first real jobs — their first introduction to an office environment — are precisely in these sorts of environments. Far more than my ethics class, this is where they learn what's considered right and wrong in a business context.

I teach business students, many of whom are aiming at law school next. Their first job, though? A telecom call centre. I have students aiming at careers in consulting. Their first gig? Working storefront sales at a bank. And so on. The habits these young people learn — what counts as acceptable, what counts as professional, what counts as good or even decent customer service — are very often being learned in jobs at call centres and other low-level sales jobs.

Changing the culture

I think three things need to change in order to mitigate the influence of this corporate culture on Canada's youngest, most vulnerable employees.

First, young people need to know about these risks. They need to know that accepting and keeping a job that requires them to act in ways that they know to be wrong is going to change them. It's going to diminish their integrity, and make them less proud of who they are as young professionals. I realize that the job market is tough, and young people don't always feel like they have choices. But they need to know the risks they face, and go in with their eyes open.

Second, corporate Canada needs to acknowledge, understand and respond to this risk. Corporations need to realize that some among their call-centre employees and other front-line sales staff are their future team leaders, and that they are learning and normalizing high-risk behaviours that may come back to haunt head office later. Corporate training — and in particular "onboarding" — needs to deal specifically with these risks, and provide resources for young employees who find themselves being pressured to act unethically.

Finally, business schools need to do better at equipping their students to face these challenges. We spend too much time, in our business ethics classrooms, talking about Volkswagen and Enron and other famous scandals involving senior managers. We need to educate students about the challenges faced specifically by young people early in their careers, and better prepare them to face those challenges. 

Unsavoury tactics can become major problems. Especially when they are learned young.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Chris MacDonald teaches ethics and critical thinking at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. He's director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, where he heads up the Early Career Employees Project.

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