The Ethical Economics
Study Center

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

This movie is a great example of how the desire to succeed in business can lead employees, and especially salespeople, to overstep ethical boundaries. Most people are understandably suspicious of salesmen. Most expect them to stretch the truth, or hide the truth, in order to make a sale.

This movie focuses attention on realtors selling land parcels in Florida and Arizona to customers who are often reluctant to buy. Their poor sales performance forces the office manager, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), to bring in Blake (Alec Baldwin), a motivational speaker, to put added pressure for new sales. The winner of an announced sales contest wins a Cadillac, but the two worst performers get fired. The salesmen react in various ways, but the high pressure leads most of them to lie, cheat, or steal to have some chance of succeeding in the contest.

In highlighting the bad behavior of the salesmen, the movie demonstrates why many people have negative attitudes towards business, especially the sales business. Some may believe that such behavior is a characteristic of capitalism. However, such behavior does not serve customers well and will not lead to mutually beneficial transactions. These unethical behaviors are not conducive to economic efficiency and are antithetical to capitalism.

Nevertheless, it is a common occurrence in business as demonstrated by a recent scandal at Wells Fargo Bank. In the early 2010s, management at Wells Fargo put enormous pressure on account managers at bank branches to do more "cross-selling." That means if a customer opens a new a checking account, bank employees are asked to encourage them to get a credit card, or open a savings account. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this practice because customers can refuse if not interested. However, things got out of hand at Wells Fargo because of intense pressure on bank employees to meet extremely high targets for new accounts. Successful employees first turned to friends and family to meet their sales quotas but eventually desperation led many to make up millions of fraudulent bank accounts, without customer consent, to satisfy management and secure their own jobs.

An excessive desire to make greater profit can lead to overzealous attempts to secure sales, even if it means using deception, or counterfeits, or psychological tricks to get people to buy what they don't really want. This is in sharp contrast to the way Don Walling wants to profit in the furniture business in the movie Executive Suite, namely make a better product and keep the customer happy.

More Info




Glengarry Glen Ross - Trailer


Glengarry Glen Ross - Speech


Reflection Questions

  1. What methods does Blake use to motivate the salesmen?
  2. What does Blake say is the most important thing in this life?
  3. How does Blake demonstrate his superiority over the others?
  4. What sort of behavior does the pressure to succeed motivate among the salesmen in the movie?
  5. How often do you think sales jobs require behavior similar to that displayed in the movie? Do you think being a good salesman requires this type of behavior?
  6. If you are in a sales job and everyone else is behaving a little dishonestly to secure sales, does that mean you have to conform to that norm? What are the consequences if you don't conform?