Is Your Trash Talk Violating The Code Of Ethics?

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REALTORS shall not knowingly or recklessly make false or misleading statements about other real estate professionals, their businesses, or their business practices. (Amended 1/12)

Imagine you’re working with an agent or broker, either within your own brokerage or across the negotiating table. The two of you don’t see eye to eye, and you simply can’t stand the sight of this person. Now, you’re at happy hour, clutching onto anyone who’ll listen to talk about your dislike of this other Realtor and speculating on what nefarious misdeeds they’re (probably) up to.

Congratulations. You may have just violated the Realtor Code of Ethics. Article 15 lays out a comprehensive list of ways in which you must refrain from attacking the character or business practices of another Realtor.

Some of the specifics include:

  • Not initiating false or misleading statements about another Realtor, their business or their business practices (15-2)
  • Not passing on gossip that’s false or misleading about another Realtor, their business or their business practices (15-2)
  • Not posting false or misleading statements about another Realtor, their business or their business practices on social media nor passing them along in writing (via email or text, for example) (15-2)
  • Correcting false or misleading statements you’ve made in person or in writing once you’ve found out that they’re false or misleading (15-3)

You may think of Article 15 as being primarily about making statements to clients or potential clients about a competitor, and much of the case law pertains to this. However, the Article does not specify that, and much of the shit-talking that Realtors frequently engage in, whether in the office or socially, constitutes a potential violation.

There are many ways to run afoul of Article 15

While this part of the Code of Ethics isn’t more important than any other, it’s the one that we have the most control over — because we can control running our mouths. Furthermore, it impacts the reputation of the industry by undermining the professional reputation of both the speaker and the subject. 

In addition, Article 15 is probably the one that everyone has violated at one time or another. Whether you’ve told a “funny” story at a dinner party about what a friend-of-a-friend (incorrectly) said about an agent or you’ve hurled misleading accusations at a broker when leaving their brokerage, you’ve been in violation.

Remember, this is about more than agent-on-agent crime. It’s also brokers talking about the “weak link” in their brokerage. It’s team leaders complaining and speculating about an annoying team member. It’s agents who spread rumors about higher-ups in their organization out of a sense of grievance.

“Another issue we commonly see that agents aren’t always aware of is that many of the real estate portals out there are also Realtor members. We’ve all heard complaints about the portals, but these negative comments are Article 15 violations ever since the portals have become brokerages,” managing broker of California at Side and a local professional standards chair, Casey McLoed says.

What does it mean to be a professional under Article 15?

Everybody has personal preferences. Maybe there’s someone in your brokerage who just irritates you or someone you hate sitting across from at the closing table. Maybe there’s a big-time Realtor in your market who you feel has taken money out of your pocket. 

You’re allowed to dislike that person. You’re allowed to say they’re ugly or a bad dresser, whether to their face or behind their back. What you’re not allowed to do is falsely call them dishonest. Call them uncommitted to their job or their clients. Call them crooked or inept. All of these speak to their business and business practices.

Addressing it the right way

If you think someone has acted in a way that’s dishonest or that they’ve done something that’s against the law or the Code of Ethics, there are ways to address that.

File a complaint with their broker or with the Board of Realtors. If you wouldn’t take that step, if you couldn’t substantiate your allegations to that degree, you have no business passing that gossip along.

NAR provides extensive resources regarding the process for filing a complaint as well as the subsequent arbitration process. Before you run your mouth, check it out here.

One place Article 15 takes a beating is when a disgruntled agent is leaving a brokerage. They may take that as a free pass to say terrible things about the broker, the brokerage or the agents they worked with.

Resist this temptation.

If you have an issue with your broker or another agent, reach out to them directly. If it’s personal, address it — or get over it. If it’s professional, find out the process for filing a complaint or what internal process exists to address your concerns.

Most of all, be honest with yourself about the root of your problem.

Are you mad that the other agent is more successful than you are? Are you resentful that your production is down this year? Are you having personal problems that are making you overly sensitive and angry — then bleeding over into your professional perceptions?

Consider how trash-talking makes you look

Most of all, think about how talking this way makes you look: 

  • Think about how you look when you’ve had one too many and can’t stop talking. 
  • Think about what it says when you’re sending texts and emails around blasting another Realtor, especially if your allegations are demonstrably untrue. 
  • Think about the impact on your reputation if that Realtor decides to invoke Article 15 and file a complaint against you for your words and actions.

In the moment, you may think that you are justified, but playing the victim or being a gossip-monger will never make you look good. Consider whether broadcasting your personal grievance is going to be worse for you or the object of your wrath.

“Being heated or upset over a situation is something we all experience whether personally or professionally, McLoed said. “We all know that very regrettable statements or actions can be made in these situations as well. But you need to keep your composure in those scenarios.” 

McLoed tells agents to open an email — address it to themselves — write out their complaint or whatever thoughts they have, and then leave that email as a draft and wait a day before returning to it. 

“Now imagine this message sitting in front of the tribunal at an ethics hearing, or worse, projected up on the wall in a courtroom, then ask yourself: ‘Do I really want to say this? Do I really want my colleagues, my peers to see me communicate in this way?’” McLoed said. 

“The answer is no. You vented, but only to yourself, you’ve had time to cool down. Delete the draft, and continue on in a professional manner.”

If you think you’ve been the victim of an Article 15 violation

On the other side of the coin, if you have been the subject of an Article 15 violation, you may be considering filing a complaint. Talk to your manager first to find out if you have recourse within your brokerage and to determine what the process looks like. 

Talk to the representative at your local association, as well. Find out what evidence you’d need to prove your claim, and make sure you have it. You don’t want to file a grievance and then find out that you can’t make your charges stick.

Before you go through channels, you may want to explore other options, like a cease-and-desist letter from your attorney. In addition, if you have proof that the violation has had a material impact on your business and earnings, you may choose to seek legal recourse and compensation.

According to Sandra Miller, president of Engel & Völkers Santa Monica and a member of the professional standards committee, presiding officer, ethics advocate and mediator for the Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors: “Agents should be held accountable for inappropriate behavior, and the only way to ensure that they are is to file an ethics complaint. Do not be afraid of the process, most of the country has adopted the usage of an ethics advocate who can walk you through the process. Call your local Association Professional Standards Administrator, and they will walk you through the process.”

Troy Palmquist is the founder and broker of DOORA Properties in Southern California. Follow him on Instagram or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Francis McGee

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