Real Estate by Debbie Reynolds: Confessions of an Ethics Instructor

Confessions of an Ethics Instructor

Teaching Ethics to New REALTORS®

Today was my day to teach our new REALTORS® their intro to the Code of Ethics. This is a mandatory class with our Association (and NAR) and the class is 4 hours long. I remember several years ago I proctored this class and how boring the subject of ethics was. I wondered how much was sinking into the new agents heads or were they simply thinking about making their first commission.  It can be a very dry subject talking about all the rules and how we can get in trouble by not following them. It is easy to tune out.

NAR has prepared a powerpoint presentation to be used in this class. The instructor has the freedom to deliver the material anyway she sees fit. Here's what happened. The computer had a meltdown about 3/4's of the way through the class. The presentation was lost. Of course I had an outline to follow but felt inspired to deviate from the text and put a different spin on how we should deal with our fellow agents.

I shared a real story about a situation where the buyers agent called a listing agent's seller to try to apply pressure to the seller to pay a higher commission if she were to get her buyers to buy his house. He said he would think about it as he didn't want to say no and her not bring an offer.

The seller immediately called his agent to share about this demand phone call. He said he wanted to sell the house, needed to sell the house and if paying an additional percent could make that happen he would do it though he didn't want to. His listing agent told him that the cooperating commission was stated in MLS and the agent should not have made the call as it was a violation of the REALTOR® Code of Ethics. Contacting another agent's client and trying to negotiate the commission directly was totally unacceptable.

Then the listing agent called the buyers agent to ask why she made the call. She said there was nothing wrong with it and that she knew the seller well and felt like it was perfectly okay as she had sold several of his homes in the past. The listing agent pointed out it was a violation of the Code and the buyers agent did not agree or believe it. There was no point in continuing the conversation as the buyers agent was clearly in the dark that she did anything wrong.

A follow up call was made to the buyers agent's broker. The conversation was shared and the broker immediately said his agent was in the wrong and to please allow him to talk with her to straighten it out. He took the opportunity to get her to research the Code and she found she was in violation of two articles. She realized she was wrong and called to apologize. She no longer brought up her desire for more commission and said she would be bringing in a full price price offer from her buyer.

The buyers agent followed up with a note of apology and said she had learned a valuable lesson and would not be doing that again.

After sharing this story, I asked the class whether an Ethics Complaint should be filed against that REALTOR® under these circumstances? The overwhelming response was no.

I concurred and used this to illustrate it is preferable to have one on one conversations with our fellow agents when we see behavior is contradictory to the COE. Many times it is just ignorance and an agent not knowing. Sure they should know the rules, but reality is it doesn't always sink in when they hear it the first time around. Communication should be used more often and it can resolve so many problems. It is not always necessary to file formal complaints when a phone call, a conversation, a discussion can be the catalyst to start a change in behavior.

I encouraged the New REALTORS® to talk to one another and when they see unethical behavior to speak up. It is up to all of us to monitor and self-correct the members of our profession. Communication is the key to better relationships and better behavior. Silence won't get it done. We don't have to threaten filing a complaint every time. Let's talk. (My confession is that this was not part of the NAR presentation.)

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Comment balloon 34 commentsDebbie Reynolds • September 06 2018 01:54AM


Oh gee whiz....why not just write it in the offer...if it flies it does...and if not...oh well....

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Real Estate Agents - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) almost 2 years ago

Good morning Debbie. A formal complaint is trumped by a phone call of cooperation and adherence. Enjoy your day!

Posted by Wayne Martin, Real Estate Broker - Retired (Wayne M Martin) almost 2 years ago

Good morning again Debbie. What a great way to reach the class. War stories do have their place.

Posted by Sheila Anderson, The Real Estate Whisperer Who Listens 732-715-1133 (Referral Group Incorporated) almost 2 years ago

Good morning Debbie Reynolds,

And your telling war stories is a good way to grab their attention ad get them involved in a real live situation that can occur. Valuable lesson for the class!

Posted by Dorie Dillard CRS GRI ABR, Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate (Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.750.6899) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie... when I was at the Harvard Business School, all of our work was done via case studies... and 40 years later I still remember the "lessons" of a number of case studies we did. And this is a great way to teach subjects like ethics, as well.

Posted by Nina Hollander, Your Charlotte/Ballantyne/Waxhaw/Fort Mill Realtor (Coldwell Banker Realty) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie.  I always enjoy the ethics classes where the instructor has lots of real-world examples that point out these issues.

Posted by Gabe Sanders, Stuart Florida Real Estate (Real Estate of Florida specializing in Martin County Residential Homes, Condos and Land Sales) almost 2 years ago

Giving a REAL example can help much more than just reading from a book. It gets the class so much more involved. Nicely done Debbie!

Posted by Lawrence "Larry" & Sheila Agranoff. Cell: 631-805-4400, Long Island Home and Condo Specialists (The Top Team @ Charles Rutenberg Realty 255 Executive Dr, Plainview NY 11803) almost 2 years ago

Debbie, this was a valid ethics complaint, and the buyer's agent was lucky it stopped with her broker.

Posted by Joan Cox, Denver Real Estate - Selling One Home at a Time (House to Home, Inc. - Denver Real Estate - 720-231-6373) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie,
Real life examples are always the most effective way of relaying an important subject like ethics.  In the case study you used, I don't think ignorance was the biggest factor.  Greed was.  That agent was mighty lucky it was resolved in the way it was. 

Posted by Carol Williams, Retired Agent / Broker / Property Manager (Although I'm retired, I love sharing my knowledge and learning from other real estate industry professionals.) almost 2 years ago

Thank you very much, Debbie, for sharing your classroom experience and this story.

Posted by Roy Kelley (Realty Group Referrals) almost 2 years ago

some agents have NO common sense....this is a common sense judgment call by that buyer's agent.... she's stupid... plain and simple... Debbie Reynolds 

Posted by Barbara Todaro, Marketing Agent for The Todaro Team (RE/MAX Executive Realty ) almost 2 years ago

It would be wonderful to attend a class that you were teaching, I am sure that you make even the driest topics interesting.

Posted by Brian England, MBA, GRI, REALTOR® Real Estate in East Valley AZ (Arizona Focus Realty) almost 2 years ago

Good morning Debbie - you faciliated a very good case study and following the ethics is important because working with others to educate them will work better for changing behavior.

Posted by Grant Schneider, Your Coach Helping You Create Successful Outcomes (Performance Development Strategies) almost 2 years ago


Great way to teach, and in reading the comment by Nina Hollander , it triggered a memory of my mother who had attended the Harvard Business School as an exec for RJR Nabisco stating that the course she took was all case studies, and she liked that.  A

Posted by Ron and Alexandra Seigel, Luxury Real Estate Branding, Marketing & Strategy (Napa Consultants) almost 2 years ago

Case studies and discussion is always a much better way to teach and have it sink in.

I agree with you about having the conversation instead of just jumping right to the the ethics complaint, although I do think records *should* be kept for these first offenses to insure they were actually done out of ignorance and won't be repeated. 

Posted by Susan Haughton, Susan & Mindy Team...Honesty. Integrity. Results. (Long and Foster REALTORS (703) 470-4545) almost 2 years ago

Debbie what a great post and needless to say I have said this before and I will say it again.... Ethics & Morals either you have it or you do not as much as NAR is trying to teach it, it should have been thought by the parents when they were children. I went to a school that had the motto Duty Honor Country, we did not need ethics classes, just sayin Endr

Posted by Endre Barath, Jr., Realtor - Los Angeles Home Sales 310.486.1002 (Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices) almost 2 years ago

Debbie, loved this post. I am sure the attendees enjoyed your class on Ethics. Communication is the key to better relationships and better behavior.

Posted by Rebecca Gaujot, Realtor®, Lewisburg WV, the go to agent for all real estate (Vision Quest Realty) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie- congratulations to you for being able to handle the computer glitch. And, I love your story that you explained to your class. The important point is not so much to get another agent in trouble by taking it to the Board, but to educate the agent. 

Posted by Kathy Streib, Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224 (Room Service Home Staging) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie case stories are the best way to teach agents what the code really means in the real world. This buyers agent fessed up and did the right thing. If I had been her broker I would have required her to complete a code of ethics class again - even if she already had taken it.  I enjoy teacing ethics - one of my favorite courses packed full of stories you couldn't make up if you tried - all real..

Posted by Anna Banana Kruchten Arizona's Top Banana!, 602-380-4886 (HomeSmart Real Estate BR030809000) almost 2 years ago

And BTW I've been in your situation with computer going down or something and I'm left with paper outline. You did a great job of winging it!

Posted by Anna Banana Kruchten Arizona's Top Banana!, 602-380-4886 (HomeSmart Real Estate BR030809000) almost 2 years ago

I'm sure it felt like an unfortunate computer incident AND also sure the students will not forget your story!  Real situations seem to capture the audience and lead to evaluating and applying (sometimes at a higher level)   As an educator, that's the goal!  Thank you for sharing Debbie.  And Congratulations on the Feature!

Posted by Alesha A. Wilson, M.Ed., Buy and Sell Real Estate with Confidence (Buy and Sell Oklahoma LLC) almost 2 years ago

Real life experiences are so much better for teaching, they can relate to it on a personal level.  Thank you for posting.

Posted by Karen Feltman, Relocation Specialist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, IA KW Legacy Group) almost 2 years ago

We need these real life anecdotes for classes like these.  This is the best way to illustrate just how complicated certain ethic situations can be.  

Posted by Kevin Mackessy, Dedicated. Qualified. Local. (Blue Olive Properties, LLC) almost 2 years ago

I think ethics in any profession is extremely important and reveals either our honesty to do things right or interest in getting ahead under any circumstance.  Situational ethics was a big topic in the late 70s I think.

I really don't wish to bring up gun control but I remember Dukakis being asked if he would defend his family if an intruder threatened their lives.

It can be either that extreme or just small things...


Posted by John Henry, Florida Architect, Residential Architect, Luxury Custom Home Design (John Henry Masterworks Design International, Inc.) almost 2 years ago

What a great story To share with the new agents.  THanks for educating all of us here

Posted by Lise Howe, Assoc. Broker in DC, MD, VA and attorney in DC (Keller Williams Capital Properties) almost 2 years ago

This reminds me of the ten plus years I spend on the grievance committees and the professional standards panels as a panelist and judge over my peers and all the stories and detours agents & principals got into when interacting. Interesting to note: The majority of complaints were obvious in deed and nature. Catch me or stop me if you can was the driving force. WE DID! Others knew not what they do. Ethics when crossed takes all prisoners is my take-away

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) almost 2 years ago

It sounds like you were the kind of instructor we need to have on a class like this.  This story is one people can relate to and you taught a valuable lesson, to try to work it out amongst peers, instead of filing the complaint.  I think this is definitely something these students will remember and definitely valuable information for them.  Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Brenda J. Andrew, Professional Realtor in Corpus Christi, TX (ULTIMA REAL ESTATE) almost 2 years ago

What wonderful real life story Debbie Reynolds  so glad the agents broker was ethical . Sometimes you do run into situations where the apple does not fall far from the tree .  I agree with many here about you teaching amazing class .  So glad this was Featured as I missed this post

Posted by Hannah Williams, Expertise NE Philadelphia & Bucks 215-953-8818 (Re/Max Eastern inc.) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie

I'm glad there is so much discussion about ethics issues, and in particular sharing examples of what constitutes a violation or not. It's not always a black and white situation. And your lesson was a valuable one.

But I have to wonder...does this training really impact agent who are unethical to begin with and have no qualms about behaving unethically to get what they want? Despite the ethics requirements we still continue to see all sorts of issues. That's not to say ethics training is not useful but one has to wonder about the success of the process for dealing with complaints and the resistance to filing complaints that are legitimate.

Just venting a little!!


Posted by Jeff Dowler, CRS, The Southern California Relocation Dude (eXp Realty of California) almost 2 years ago

Hard to know whether those sorts of situations come up due to ignorance or due to lack of ethics. We sadly know of a number of agents around here that appear not to have been in attendance when ethics were handed out.

Posted by Jon Quist, Tucson's BUYERS ONLY Realtor since 1996 (REALTY EXECUTIVES ARIZONA TERRITORY) almost 2 years ago

Well taught lesson to those new agents. Good for you.  That was a whopper of a story!

Posted by Jan Green, HomeSmart Elite Group, REALTOR®, EcoBroker, GREEN (Value Added Service, 602-620-2699) almost 2 years ago

Hi Debbie: This is a perfect illustration of my belief that you  can't "teach" someone how to be ethical!  There is no way one can learn how to be ethical if one is not! Those classes are merely a reminder that many people in this world operate at a different level of honesty--usually they make decisions based on selfish reasons (as is illustrated so well here in your post!) and not at all about right and wrong. In the long run, a dishonest agent gets found out---and the requirement of the class to "teach" them how to be ethical becomes just another boring thing they must do to continue their malpractice! This is only my opinion, but I have seen it so many times and have been a first hand witness of the malpractice of dishonest agents so many times that it makes me cringe every time I hear how important it is to take these classes! I believe that once an agent has done something unethical and is caught violating any of the items covered in the classes they simply refine their behavior so as to NOT get caught the next time! I have seen this and it is usually well known among the other agents...unethical behavior is rampant in real estate! Great post and very timely topic too!

Posted by Paula Hathaway, REALTOR, LBA, ...A Local Expert in all The Hamptons (Douglas Elliman Real Estate) almost 2 years ago

Wonderful teaching experience, Debbie! It's a good reminder that we can solve issues without involving a COE panel. The downside, sadly, is that often those fines and additional CE are the only things that make some agents (and their brokers - hurray for this broker for being proactive) toe the line. Can't "teach" ethics, IMO, just remind people of the expectations of us as REALTORS. 

Posted by Lisa Heindel, New Orleans Real Estate Broker (Crescent City Living LLC) almost 2 years ago

Isn't the spirit of the Code about co-operation and working together.  Matter resolved without taking further steps.... all is good.

Posted by Kevin Vitali, Helping Massachusetts Home Buyers and Home Sellers (EXIT Realty- Massachusetts Short Sales & Residential Sales) almost 2 years ago