By Esther Muller
President, Esther Muller Consultants

Real Estate Weekly
June 15, 2005

When John Reinhardt, the president and chief executive officer of Fillmore Real Estate, New York’s largest privately owned and operated real estate company, recently launched an ethics program for his company’s 500 agents, one broker was more than a reluctant participant.

“He said he had no intention of following the new guidelines,” remembers Reinhardt. The agent was fired.

“That was a good loss,” he says. “I want Fillmore to be ethical and fair not only among ourselves but to the industry and to the people whom we serve. I have zero tolerance for brokers who don’t abide by our ethical standards.”

I couldn’t agree more. Ethics, as defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary, is “a set of principles or right conduct.”

And I am happy to note that the real estate industry, thanks to many of our fellow colleagues, broker-owners and trade associations, has always made ethics an integral part of its agenda.

As Eileen Spinola, senior vice president, The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), notes, “Ethics and business are not mutually exclusive.”

An agent with an ethical reputation is rewarded in intangible and tangible ways. Brokers want to work with an individual who is known for his integrity.

And that follows through with clients, who want to place their homes – their most valuable asset and the most emotional one – in the hands of someone they trust. And with that trust comes referrals. Added together, that agent will win both financially and personally. I call that ROI – Return on Integrity.

A veteran broker recently told me a story about how he had six people bidding on an apartment: three direct bids and three co-brokered. If he had gone with the first group, his commission would have been significantly higher. And no one would have been the wiser.

But he knew he had the fiduciary responsibility of providing his client, the seller, with the most qualified buyer. In the end, he presented both the direct and co-brokered bids to the seller who made the final decision. “I was really tempted to go with the direct bids,” he remembers, “but in the end, presenting the full picture to my client was the right thing to do.”

As this broker’s tale demonstrates, being ethical can be hard (especially where money is concerned!). And it’s not always so clear-cut. Many agents have faced situations where the right resolution isn’t clear. Ignorance or a plain lapse in judgment is something that all of us, as imperfect beings, have fallen to. That’s why it is always important to seek guidance when an ethical dilemma arises.

There are many resources. Many continuing education programs offer classes on ethics. You can always refer to REBNY’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. Or you can ask your manager.

But what happens when an ethics lapse occurs? REBNY’s Ethics Committee has a methodical process in place when a member is reported to be in violation of its ethics regulations. Often, the person who makes the charge and the subject of the complaint are personally questioned by the committee, an independent group of real estate professionals elected by REBNY members. They carefully review the situation and determine if a lapse has occurred. If one has, it is addressed in an appropriate manner. “We know mistakes happen,” says Spinola. “But there is always an opportunity for redemption.”

As an industry, we’ve had our public ups and downs but the real estate market is primarily populated with professionals who embrace and practice ethics in every aspect of their business lives.

And for the few who don’t, their time is limited. Just ask John Reinhardt.