“At Pfizer I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives. I couldn’t do that.”
The sales representative who blew the whistle on Pfizer’s illegal marketing practices, John Kopchinski, made that statement about his now-former employer.
Mr. Kopchinski was fired from the company in 2003. He won’t miss his job. He received over $50 million from the US government for his efforts to prosecute the $2.3 billion fraud settlement from his former employer—the largest such settlement in US history. The product he was assigned to sell, Bextra, is a discontinued medication approved for arthritis and menstrual pain.
Paying $2.3 billion for “fraudulent marketing” should cause every marketing professional and salesperson to break into a nervous sweat. Murky ethics are amazingly common. They begin innocuously, then escalate. According to Mr. Kopchinski, what started as “aggressive promotion” of Bextra mutated into illegal practices. As he put it, “the ethical line kept moving.” And the pharmaceutical industry’s shady sales practices moved back into the spotlight this week, when John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment detailed more skeletons tumbling from pharma’s marketing closet.
I’ve seen it elsewhere. Ethical risks are shrouded in code-speak: “we’re a ‘revenue-focused’ organization,” or “our company champions an ‘aggressive sales culture.’” Anyone who doesn’t take heed from Mr. Kopchinski’s ethical-line observation faces the same risks. In Pfizer’s case, the problems didn’t begin with stereotypical predatory salespeople and percolate upward—they began at the top. As the saying goes, “the fish starts rotting at the head.”
How can bright people working for well-regarded companies commit such ruthless dishonesty, when they wouldn’t think of stealing their next-door neighbor’s pension check—arguably a far less-heinous crime? Unfortunately, the answer is all too simple, and all too common: by insulating the perpetrators from the victims. Here’s Pfizer’s approach:
Sales commissions: According to the NPR health blog, a “$50 bounty (was) paid to reps when they got doctors to add Bextra to the standard care for patients before and after surgery. These care protocols would direct patients to take Bextra, often at high doses, a few days before a knee operation, for instance, and then afterward to control pain.”
Telemarketing scripts directed to physicians: Salespeople were coached to tout greater efficacy and safety for Bextra compared to Vioxx, a competing painkiller from Merck. The US Food and Drug Administration never approved these claims.
Sales culture: OK. Let’s call it by its real name—intimidation. “If you don’t aggressively sell your products . . . you’re labeled a non-team player,” Kopchinski said, adding that only by promoting Bextra for unapproved uses could he achieve management’s revenue goals.
You can see the evidence in clear black and white, and it’s all creepy. What was Pfizer’s management thinking? Caught with its pants down, Pfizer cut a check for $2.3 billion. Everybody—just shut up, leave the chicanery behind, and let’s move on! Problem resolved.
But is it? At the same time that jolly Pfizer managers were gloating over PowerPoint slides depicting beautifully soaring revenue curves, people were suffering or dying from taking medications for unapproved uses. Yes, that’s rock bottom. Bad ethics don’t get any worse than that, and even a $2.3 billion mea culpa won’t enable the company to sweep its dark tactics under the rug. A plan to sell cigarettes in elementary schools seems more benign.
Which brings Pfizer’s indiscretions to the everyday salesperson. We’ve all experienced what happens when “baggage” is brought into a sales meeting. A salesperson is often considered guilty before he or she proclaims innocence. It’s understandable. Along with evaluating the performance and features of a product, prospects scrutinize a salesperson’s motivations and integrity. But as Pfizer’s deceit has shown us, prospects now need to look further, and to question whether the top management of a vendor’s company has a moral compass. The answer to that question could reveal buyer risks that were previously unimagined.