The U.S. DSA Code of Ethics, which first went into effect in 1970, is the backbone of the self-regulation that our industry imposes upon itself. The Code lays out the rules of the game for how companies and their independent contractors should conduct business. Some people, both within and outside of the industry, dispute the effectiveness of the Code. The most notable action was the withdrawal from DSA membership of a major company in September 2014, which used as part of its rationale a stance that the Code was weak and out of date. Others, however, view the Code as the correct tool to guide and regulate our industry.
The Code has been working for this industry for more than 50 years, and it has undergone changes and updates in order to stay relevant. Indeed, over the past year, the Ethics & Self-Regulation Committee of the DSA has placed a major priority on updating and strengthening this Code to stay in tune with current needs. It was reported that more than 60 companies participated in contributing thoughts. This process has raised a new question for us: What will it take to integrate a strong Code of Ethics into the reality of every direct selling company?
We know that a Code of Ethics is essential for every legitimate industry; however, we also know that reality is never truly about what is contained in the printed word. Reality and marketplace perception are determined by actual business practice and the interpretation of that practice by the public.
The answer to our question above also is complicated by the fact that bad news still travels faster than good news. This means that a few bad experiences can outweigh a greater number of positive experiences. It is a simple truth that remains a huge challenge to the entire direct selling industry.
So, what are we to do? As we are now headed toward the end of 2015, we are closing in on the effective date of the Code changes: Jan. 1, 2016. The DSA certainly will have new printed words that will explain the Code, but will those words actually change behavior or perception in the marketplace? From this viewpoint, the printed word is simply the guideline published for the benefit of an entire industry that uses the direct selling channel of distribution. Of course, DSA member companies are bound by the Code of Ethics; however, independent contractors are bound only to their individual company.
Because the direct selling channel is composed of many independent contractors who come from all walks of life, one easily can realize that the printed word will be only as impactful as the effectiveness of each direct selling company in integrating its own value system into all promotional efforts relative to the opportunity as well as the products and services that are sold. The DSA Code is a guide for all companies, but the effectiveness of any code of ethics lies in how each and every company promotes adherence among its independent contractors. Think about this: If all that your independent contractors know about your company’s adherence to a Code of Ethics is that you post the DSA logo on your website, what do they really know and understand about your commitment to that Code?
I believe that in order to impact the behaviors of independent contractors, the messaging and vernacular of a value system mirroring the DSA Code of Ethics will have to be integrated and woven into the marketing and promotional messages of every direct selling company.
Language and word choice are always important when crafting marketing messages, and we certainly realize that independent contractors may not respond with enthusiasm to a “code of ethics” and its detailed verbiage. Independent contractors do, however, respond to principles and values, the vision of the company they have chosen, and the opportunity to represent something of which they can be proud. Perhaps a more positive positioning that resonates with the language independent contractors respond to might get their attention and their buy-in more effectively.
Consider embracing language such as “Our Way of Conducting Business” or “Making Lives Better,” and developing an active campaign to bring all independent contractors on board with the DSA’s more stringent ethical guidelines. Such a campaign might simply include the following tenants:
- We are committed to making the lives of our customers and independent contractors better as a result of their experience with us in any form or fashion.
- We do not tolerate misrepresentation of our products, services or opportunity.
- Violation of the above principles is a serious offense at our company.
The above three points of suggested positioning keep it simple and focused on the most relevant aspects of any code of ethics: treating others as you would wish to be treated. What if our industry—with more than 16 million independent contractors in the U.S. alone and close to 100 million worldwide—truly focused on what matters most?
DSAs throughout the world have always stressed a strong Code of Ethics by which their member companies must abide. We believe that by extending a very strong ethical code out through the independent contractor network, marketplace perception can and will shift to an emphasis on the very positive aspect of the direct selling method of selling and servicing consumers. We believe that if and when every direct selling company integrates this kind of campaign into their marketing and promotional messaging, we could become recognized as adhering to the highest level of ethics of any consumer-focused industry.
Formerly Publisher and Editor in Chief, John Fleming currently serves as Ambassador for Direct Selling News magazine. His distinguished direct selling career includes selection as the DSEF Circle of Honor recipient in 1997.