Unusual, Not Unethical
To the Editors of The Crimson:
This letter is being written in response to your article on the Southwestern Company last Spring. I was going to let it pass until last night when I met a friend of my girlfriend's family, a woman who works in Holyoke Center. She said, "What do you do over the summers?" and I said, "I work for Southwestern." "Not for that company!"
Yes, for that company. I don't know too much about what happened to Dennis Rinehart and Tom Curley; I do know about what I did, and about those parts of the training that everyone went through. For example, sales school; I too slept on the steps of the auditorium early one morning. The temperature was about 78 degrees; there were interesting people to talk to when I woke up; I was not at all uncomfortable. As another example, take housing. The company instructed, in sales school, how to find a place to live; we had two full pages of suggestions. We were also told that we might have to spend a night or two in a motel, since it was possible that we might not find a place to stay in the first day or two. Everyone knew this before they left Nashville. As I understand it, the "down payment" that Dennis lost was a whopping $2.50, and that he and the other students voluntarily spent those nights in the hotel while waiting until the weekend to move into a place they had already found. Doesn't sound too scary, or more important, too disorganized to me.
About selling. I don't know what Tom and Dennis did. I know that I paid attention to what people were saying to me. And I spent plenty of time talking to them about the "problems" they brought up to me. I didn't coerce or mislead or manipulate anybody. I had my sales talk memorized just like anyone else and used it as a tool: When someone appeared interested in the books after a minute or two of talking with them, I used those parts of the talk that related to what they seemed interested in. If they didn't seem at all interested, I just left (which is, by the way, what I was told I should do. Why waste time with uninterested people?).
About selling to people who "can't afford it". At one point during the summer, after I had completed a middle- to upper-middle class section of Tucson, Don Nicholson, my student manager, asked me if I wanted to try South Tucson. The unemployment rate there was about 30 percent. I said, sure I'd try it. And guess which 70 per cent of the people I showed my books to? The people who had jobs, that's which 70 per cent. Sometimes I wouldn't find out until too late that I was talking to someone without a job. So I finished showing them the books, and left. Mostly they'd ask how much they were; I told them ($36.93, including all state and local taxes), they said they had no money, and I left. Sometimes I took an order from people who didn't have any money, either because I forgot to ask or they didn't tell me, or both. If I found out at the time (usually when they said that they could not, rather than chose not, to put down a deposit), I tore up the order. This is what the company says to do. If I didn't find out then, I found out at the end of the summer when I tried to deliver that erroneous order. The people had no money then, either. So they neither got nor paid for the books.
One more thing: I am as gullible as the next guy, so maybe I have been suckered in. Southwestern has been around Harvard for longer than I have. I plan to talk to Dean Epps to find out why he is convinced Southwestern should not be at Harvard. He may well know some things about the company that I don't. If he does, I will seriously reconsider my decision to work for Southwestern this summer. I refuse to work for an unethical organization, and if Southwestern is one, if I have been conned, I'll quit.
So far as I can tell, though, the Southwestern job is not unethical. What it is is unusual. I got up at 5:30 every morning of the summer. I took cold showers. I worked at least 80 hours each week. I paid my own expenses, down to the last penny. I had no guaranteed salary. It's not for everyone, and a lot of my friends back home thought I was doing a crazy job. And maybe I was; but I was not unethical, I was not deceptive, I did not ignore people's problems, and I was not turned into some kind of mechanical, cold, uncaring, sub-human manipulator just my memorizing a set of talks to more clearly describe the product. And I very much resent attempts by The Crimson to portray people who work for Southwestern in any of those ways; it is just not true. Christopher Savage '77