Telemarketing and ethics don’t sound like they belong in the same sentence, but believe it or not, those dinner-time interruptions do try to maintain a certain code of ethics.

The American Teleservices Association is a nonprofit trade association that represents and serves the telemarketing profession. The organization contends that it is “committed to meeting the needs of its members, as well as protecting the rights of consumers and businesses who have telephone contact with its members.”

The ATA Web site outlines a code of ethics for its members:

  • Calling hour restrictions. “Be particularly sensitive to inconveniences caused by weekend calling,” the site reads.
  • Use of lists. Calls should always be targeted to people or companies likely to have a use for the particular product or service being offered.
  • Monitoring guidelines. Everyone has heard the famous line, “This call may be monitored to ensure quality of service or for training purposes.”

The existence of a code of ethics, however, does not necessarily guarantee the code will be followed.

Aside from removing one’s name from every telemarketing and junk-mail list out there, most people face the inevitability of being called, mailed or spammed.

What one does with those calls, e-mails and mailings is up for debate.

Someone recently asked The Jewish Ethicist: “If I pick up the phone and hear a telemarketer, do I have to listen? If I am too timid to tell her that I’m not interested, can I just hang up? And what about the salesperson herself—isn’t she guilty of invading my privacy?”

The Jewish Ethicist replied that the issue may not necessarily be one of ethics, but of etiquette.

“A telemarketer who tries to interest me in a savings plan, or a door-to-door salesperson who wants to sell me cosmetics or cleaning products, has no particular right to my attention and resources,” wrote the Ethicist. “I don’t have to stay on the phone, nor open the door.”

The best course, however, according to the Ethicist, is to be polite.

Say, “Thank you, but I’m not interested” before hanging up the receiver or closing the door.

The Jewish Ethicist pointed out that telemarketing harassment is merely a new version of an old problem.

“The Sages of the Talmud discussed the problem of door-to-door salesmen,” according to the Jewish Ethicist. Rabbis recognized the valuable service of such peddlers, but also noted their unfair advantage over local merchants and their potential for mischief.

“Jewish law,” the Ethicist wrote, “millennia prior to the FTC, regulates such selling so as to balance the benefits such salespeople bring and the danger they can cause.”

People who cringe at having to cut someone’s sale pitch short or are outraged by the waste from unwanted junk mailings can take themselves out of the loop.

In her article, “Freedom from Telemarketers,” Judith Gorman wrote on that there are ways to “strike back.”

“You need to target the mother ship of the home invasion sales fleet,” she wrote. To place a name on “Do Not Call” and “Do Not Mail” lists, one must write to both the Telephone Preference Service and the Mail Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, Box 643, Carmel, New York, 10512. Or, one can call 212-768-7277 or visit

For more information, contact the Center for a New American Dream, a consumer action group working to protect consumers’ rights and privacy.

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