Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Bad Business Ethics or Acceptable Promotional Perks?

By Jessica Silliman

Gail Ellen had taken her first job offer out of Santa Clara University. As a communication major, she hoped to go into broadcast media and eventually become an on-air personality. But she knew she had to work her way up. So she took a job with a local Bay Area radio station in the publicity department. Gail immediately fell in love with the station's young, hip vibe.

Soon after beginning at the radio station, Gail began to feel uncomfortable about some of the practices within the promotions department. When station officials requested products from local companies to be given away on-air, they would overestimate the amount necessary. The employees would then take the extra products.

This happened several times with tanning packages. A local tanning salon would often donate coupons for free one-month trials. The station didn't have a set ratio for coupon dollar amount per minute of advertising, so the promotions department would negotiate individually with each customer. It was also impossible for the individual companies to keep track of the on-air advertising time, so they never knew if their negotiated airtime was actually in effect. These negotiations resulted in a completely arbitrary system that always erred on the side of the station. Instead of giving all the tanning packages away on the air, the disc jockeys would often keep a few for personal use, or distribute them to other station employees.

Because everyone at the station enjoyed receiving the perks, nobody complained. "I enjoyed the industry," said Gail. "I'm just glad I wasn't on the other side of the street." Gail realized that the supporting companies donating give-aways had no idea of the radio station's practices. This frustrated her, but she, too, didn't feel it was worth speaking up about. "I was getting a horrible salary, so I figured I could enjoy the perks," she said. "Plus, they were on such a small scale, that it didn't seem significant."

"This was just how the business operated, so I didn't say anything," said Gail. "It was just part of the culture."

Discussion Questions:

  • Define Gail's ethical dilemma.
  • Is the radio station's policy with product give-aways ethically acceptable? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree or disagree with how Gail handled the situation and how she justified her actions?
  • Can small, relatively inconsequential perks be harmful?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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