A young Indian salesman jumped in front of a train because he couldn’t make his company’s aggressive sales targets and couldn’t stand the pressure anymore. He leaves behind a wife and two young children. This report comes from today’s New York Times, in an unsettling article titled “Driven to Suicide by an ‘Inhuman and Unnatural’ Pressure to Sell“ based on a six-month investigation of marketing practices by pharmaceutical companies in India. The events leading up to this personal tragedy and the systemic nature of the unethical sales practices are detailed in the NYT article, which is well worth reading.
In our soon-to-be-released book, Business Ethics for Executives, we argue that setting unrealistically high sales targets is an unethical management decision in itself. In Chapter 6, “Temptations of a Salesperson,” we open our discussion on problematic sales targets as follows:
“Executive management is fond of setting “stretch” targets—targets above realistic levels—to encourage everyone to think positively and pursue sales aggressively. But can stretch targets be set so high that they encourage the wrong type of behavior? For instance, can an insistence on maintaining growth in a maturing or saturating market lead desperate managers and employees to use dubious sales tactics? In such a case, the senior executives who set the unreasonable targets must share guilt. They cannot simply wash their hands and attribute what went wrong to some bad apples in their sales organization. Setting growth targets that cannot reasonably be reached is a conscious act by corporate executives, and they must bear responsibility for the consequences.”
From the highest levels of corporate management, down to the level of sales manager, everyone needs to accept responsibility for the targets they set, and the behavior that results. There is nothing wrong with being growth-focused, but setting targets that are clearly unrealistic will cause human suffering, and even death, as we saw in this tragic case.