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Can Ethics be Graded?

Who are these people?

This morning I was reading “Nurses Shine, Bankers Slump in Ethics Ratings” from My first thought, at the headline alone, was… well duh! Letting curiosity get the best of me, I read further. Of course, being in the Real Estate Industry I was curious as to where the Real Estate Agents placed. I’ll save you the suspense – it doesn’t look like we’ve moved much, but we have moved higher. However, upon further preponderance I realized that I simply didn’t care where I was on the Gallup Poll. It matters not in the least what the poll says. Most people only use the poll when trying to build a case for that which they already believe.

Are Ethical Judgments Fair?

For those who still must know, here’s what Gallup says:

Ok, so Nurses are the highest. (But on a scale where Journalist rank as high as they do, does any of it matter) This attests to my opinion that this is a useless poll. Why? Because comparing varied industries is dumb. Nurses are great, I am not taking anything away from them, but for the most part people recognize the work of the nurse, when they are sick and need assistance, the nurse is paid to “mother” in most cases. After all doesn’t a Nurse typically follow a Doctor’s orders? Transversely, even when a Nurse screws up; it’s the Doctor who takes the blame. When the bill comes from the hospital, it doesn’t reflect the salary of the nurse. Consumers get to see the salary of the agent and typically a good agent doesn’t “mother” a client – usually they have to deliver difficult news. The poll also shows Clergy as being lower as well, but lets take away TV Evangelist and see how the numbers look. What I am saying is that I’ve heard more than a few agents siting this poll as a need to exclude other practitioners from the Real Estate career.

What Really Matters?

Here’s a survey I’m more interested in….who would use their agent again. That is far more important to me than how I would rate against a Funeral Director. The NAR 2007 Profile of Buyers and Sellers say this:

62% of those surveyed say that they would “Definitely” use the same agent again and 19% said they would “Probably” use the same agent again. Yes, I know… you might disagree. But I’ve found that there is a great deal of arrogance in the real estate industry. Everyone believes that others should do business “just the way I would” or they are otherwise inappropriate for this career or “unethical.” I’ve been teaching Mock Hearing Road Shows lately. In this, we actually setup a staged hearing for both a Procuring Cause Case and Ethics. Overwhelmingly we’ve found a gross misunderstanding of how things work. Everyone keeps relying on what’s “fair.” There is nothing fair in real estate, therefore fairness has little to do with unethical behavior. In the mock hearing we allow the students to be the judge and jury. They ask questions, cross examine etc… it’s one of the most popular classes we’ve ever done. The funny thing is that when we find folks asking questions, they say things such as “shouldn’t you have done this or that?” I keep countering with “where do you find that requirement in the real estate laws, Code of Ethics or Company Policy?”

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How do YOU determine who is ethical?

In the past five years or so, I’ve worked with Professional Standards, I’ve read most Real Estate Board disciplinary actions from my state and tons of case laws. More and more I’ve been convinced that the causation of inappropriate behavior is far more relevant to the amount of education and less than the nefarious intent of the provider. Let’s ask this question: When was the last time that you informed a buyer, as they made the offer to purchase, that offers were not confidential and the seller could do with them what they wish – including copying them to everyone in their office? Read COE 1-13 and 1-15. How about the agent who warns another, that if they make an ethics complaint, they would counter with a slander suit? Did you know that was a potential violation of 14-3 article. (I only use the Code of Ethics, because state laws vary) How many agents understand the RESPA regulations? Frankly there are too many governing entities in Real Estate for everyone to know all the rules. Usually when I hear an agent rant about the behavior of other agents, I can trace it back to a fear of competition. Just because you and I may not like how they do business, it doesn’t make it wrong. Be very careful when you make an allegation… Remember that there are others who may not like how you do business, as well.

Who do you trust?

Let’s remove our own heterogeneity. Let’s look at more than if the person’s doing stuff they way that we don’t like. I desire higher education, I do think this is the answer. I desire better enforcement of the existing rules, but I also want people to judge individuals on the sum total of their existence, not their last worst mistake. Teach them – don’t alienate those who need to improve. Let’s stop looking for a Poll to tell us how to define our industry. I would bet that if we all spent more time on our own business and improving it one person at a time, we’ll do much better in the long run.

Written By

Matthew Rathbun is a Virginia Licensed Broker and Director of Professional Development for Coldwell Banker Elite, in Fredericksburg Virginia. He has opened and managed real estate firms, as well as coached and mentored agents and Brokers. As a Residential REALTOR®, Matthew was a high volume agent and past REALTOR® Rookie of the Year & Virginia Association Instructor of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter as "MattRathbun" and on Facebook. Matthew's blog is



  1. Clint Miller

    November 28, 2008 at 8:30 am

    “…want people to judge individuals on the sum total of their existence, not their last worst mistake…”

    What a fantastic statement!

  2. Missy Caulk

    November 28, 2008 at 10:32 am

    We’re below journalists? Shameful, maybe that will change after this election. LOL

  3. Matthew Hardy

    November 28, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Most nurses are aware that their “last worst mistake” could result in a patient’s death, which of course, would greatly effect their future career options. An agent’s “last worst mistake” could result in a bad story for their client; which of course, the next client will never hear.

    This points not so much to ethics, but to business competence. That “62% of those surveyed say that they would “Definitely” use the same agent again” should probably have the phrase “if they could find them” appended to it. Most agents simply move from deal to deal – without having the operating methods and systems in place to leverage today’s business into future business. Of course, this hurts the agent, but also effects the level of service they provide their clients and the reputation of the industry generally.

  4. Bob

    November 30, 2008 at 9:21 am

    “An agent’s “last worst mistake” could result in a bad story for their client; which of course, the next client will never hear.”


    One of my sellers contacted me yesterday. A C21 agent here (an agent who is easily in the top 5 for c21 here) contacted this seller and had them sign a listing agreement pending my canceling the listing. Only one problem (aside from the initial contact, discussion of listing a property already listed, and actually having my client sign the listing), the property has a a pending offer from it. I assume that since the buyer agent works for the same C21 brokerage they have already determined that it wont be an issue.

    Not the first time this agent has done this and it wont be the last. Even worse, the broker will back their agent because this agent does enough biz to keep the broker’s doors open. In this biz, when it comes to some agents, money talks and BS gets swept under the broker’s carpet.

  5. Steve Simon

    November 30, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Ethics and mistakes are not the same.
    One can be completely ethical and make mistakes. In fact in some arenas a certain percentage of mistake is expected. The acceptable range varies (an umpire or ref. is expected to blow a certain percentage of calls, however a lasik eye doctor would have a much lower level of acceptance of error). Ethics on the other hand has to do with knowingly committing a “Wrong”. Even if the letter of the law permitted you do do so, you could still be violating good ethical practice. Ethical action is a more strict measure of behavior (rather than legal action).
    Ommission when done knowingly is unethical and may be illegal as well. Ommission that occurs without knowledge aforethought may be a sign of lack of competance, but does not have to be unethical…
    The post’s points were mixing Apples and Oranges…

  6. Lisa Sanderson

    November 30, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I think the key is getting agents to know what they don’t know and making them want to learn. You can lead a horse to water but the old dog’s tricks are hard to break. Or somethin’ like that 🙂

  7. Mike Farmer

    November 30, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Lisa, I think the saying is — You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make a duck cackle.

  8. George McCumiskey

    December 3, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    It’s a teeter totter situation. Everyone makes a mistake sometimes. It’s the intention that counts OR whether or not the individual meant well doesn’t matter cause the end result is the same. We need Aristotle or one of those ancient dudes out looking for one honest man here.

  9. Stephanie Castillo

    February 3, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I realize I’m a late comer to this conversation, but as a registered nurse and licensed Realtor, I feel the need to comment. I would ask of anyone not to judge what you do not know. Many of the author’s comments concerning doctors and nurses are blatantly WRONG in fact and in context. Nursing requires education, critical thinking, and many other skills and is not “mothering” by any stretch of the imagination. Please remember to be more open-minded to different people and professions and less whiny about how low your current profession rates. Don’t forget online information is public information and may cast you in an unfavorable light.

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