Risky Behavior

 Cori Lamont  |    March 07, 2013

As REALTORS®, we must follow the law, the Code of Ethics, company policy and the ethics that we impose upon ourselves as professionals. In general it could be said that the laws and the Code of Ethics create the minimum standard expected of REALTORS®. However, most REALTORS® rise above the minimum and choose to operate at a higher level.

For those who choose to practice just before the intersection of the minimum standard and breaking the law, it is a risk. Even though you may not be this REALTOR®, the problem is that you are at risk when involved with agents who choose to practice in this manner. 

“I’m not touching you!”

Personally, I have a constant and a specific scenario that comes to mind when discussing this group of individuals who practice on the edge. In this scenario, I envision two children sitting in the backseat of the family truckster as it is screaming down the interstate, and mom or dad has finally said “enough is enough” and directed the two backseat passengers to leave the other alone, to stop tormenting each other and to keep hands to themselves. And as the moments pass, one of the backseat passengers begins the infamous torture of the other that includes the taunt, “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you.” 

Yes, this is what I think of when I picture a REALTOR® operating at the bare minimum of what is required by the law and the Code of Ethics — it’s an image of someone attempting to find a loophole in the system that allows them to function without breaking the rules. 

And for the REALTOR® who does not practice in such a manner, the involvement in a transaction with someone who does can be perilous. To be in a transaction with someone choosing to function at the lowest level of the law and required by the Code of Ethics creates uncertainty for the agent who has chosen to go above and beyond. 

While not all activities are illegal or violate the Code, certain behaviors may not be ethical. But what does that mean to the cooperating agent? How do you balance participating in the transaction and providing public services without compromising your ethics? There is no clear answer, however there are a few tips.

  1. Discuss the issue with your broker. 
  2. Have your broker communicate with the broker of the agent to inform them of the risky behavior. Broker-to-broker communication often helps in day-to-day practice as a professional courtesy to highlight a behavior of an agent that is not aboveboard in local practice. 
  3. Maintain your personal level of professionalism. 

Pathways to Professionalism

As the statements goes, it takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it. The Professional Conduct Working Group of the Professional Standards Committee of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) created a list, known as the Pathways to Professionalism, that includes professional courtesy and etiquette not addressed in the Code of Ethics.

In 2013, NAR released a video and companion brochure entitled, “A Pathway to Professionalism: Respect Starts Here.” 

The video and brochure contain six timeless tips to maintain high levels of professionalism:

  1. Follow the “Golden Rule.”
  2. Show courtesy and respect for everyone.
  3. Communicate with all parties in a timely fashion.
  4. Present a professional appearance at all times.
  5. Be aware of — and meet — all deadlines.
  6. Be aware of and respectful of all cultural differences.

The full video may be viewed at www.realtor.org/professionalism

I. Respect for the Public
  1. Follow the “Golden Rule”: Do unto other as you would have them do unto you.
  2. Respond promptly to inquiries and requests for information.
  3. Schedule appointments and showings as far in advance as possible.
  4. Call if you are delayed or must cancel an appointment or showing.
  5. If a prospective buyer decides not to view an occupied home, promptly explain the situation to the listing broker or the occupant.
  6. Communicate with all parties in a timely fashion.
  7. When entering a property ensure that unexpected situations, such as pets, are handled appropriately.
  8. Leave your business card if not prohibited by local rules.
  9. Never criticize property in the presence of the occupant.
  10. Inform occupants that you are leaving after showings.
  11. When showing an occupied home, always ring the doorbell or knock — and announce yourself loudly before entering. Knock and announce yourself loudly before entering any closed room.
  12. Present a professional appearance at all times; dress appropriately and drive a clean car.
  13. If occupants are home during showings, ask their permission before using the telephone or bathroom.
  14. Encourage the clients of other brokers to direct questions to their agent or representative.
  15. Communicate clearly; don’t use jargon or slang that may not be readily understood.
  16. Be aware of and respect cultural differences.
  17. Show courtesy and respect to everyone.
  18. Be aware of — and meet — all deadlines.
  19. Promise only what you can deliver — and keep your promises.
  20. Identify your REALTOR® and your professional status in contacts with the public.
  21. Do not tell people what you think — tell them what you know.
II. Respect for Property
  1. Be responsible for everyone you allow to enter listed property.
  2. Never allow buyers to enter listed property unaccompanied.
  3. When showing property, keep all members of the group together.
  4. Never allow unaccompanied access to property without permission.
  5. Enter property only with permission even if you have a lockbox key or combination.
  6. When the occupant is absent, leave the property as you found it with lights, heating, cooling, drapes and more. If you think something is amiss, such as possible vandalism, contact the listing broker immediately.
  7. Be considerate of the seller’s property. Do not allow anyone to eat, drink, smoke, dispose of trash, use bathing or sleeping facilities, or bring pets. Leave the house as you found it unless instructed otherwise.
  8. Use sidewalks; if weather is bad, take off shoes and boots inside property.
III. Respect for Peers
  1. Identify your REALTOR® and professional status in all contacts with other REALTORS®.
  2. Respond to other agents’ calls, faxes and e-mails promptly and courteously.
  3. Be aware that large electronic files with attachments or lengthy faxes may be a burden on recipients.
  4. Notify the listing broker if there appears to be inaccurate information on the listing.
  5. Share important information about a property, including the presence of pets, security systems, and whether sellers will be present during the showing.
  6. Show courtesy, trust and respect to other real estate professionals.
  7. Avoid the inappropriate use of endearments or other denigrating language.
  8. Do not prospect at other REALTORS®’ open houses or similar events.
  9. Return keys promptly.
  10. Carefully replace keys in the lockbox after showings.
  11. To be successful in the business, mutual respect is essential.
  12. Real estate is a reputation business. What you do today may affect your reputation — and business — for years to come.

Filing a complaint

And when the metaphoric bump in the road hits and the other REALTOR® finally breaks the law or Code and the broker-to-broker communication has either fallen on deaf ears or has not rectified the issue, there are options. When anyone wishes to make a complaint against a REALTOR®, complaints may be filed with the local REALTOR® association and the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS). The following provides a brief summary of each. 

Local REALTOR® Association 

If a REALTOR® has violated the Code, a complaint may be filed with the local REALTOR® association. Boards and associations are responsible for enforcing the Code. The Code imposes duties above and in addition to those imposed by law or regulation that apply only to real estate professionals to become REALTORS®. Boards and associations determine if the Code has been violated, not the law, and therefore may discipline for violating the Code, not the law. 

A complaint against a REALTOR®:  

  • Must be filed 180 days from the time a complainant knew or reasonably should have known that the potentially unethical conduct took place. 
  • The complaint should include a narrative describing the circumstances that lead to the alleged violation and must cite one or more articles of the Code of Ethics deemed to have been violated but may include Standards of Practice in support. 
  • Complaints are reviewed by the Grievance Committee. Complainants have the ultimate burden of proving that the Code has been violated. Keep in mind that the hearing panel cannot deem an article of the Code violated unless it was included in the complaint. 

A copy of the DSPS complaint form may be obtained at www.wra.org/dspscomplaint
  • Stage 1 — Intake: A complaint is received in the Division of Legal Services and Compliance (DLSC) and processed. The complaint and related information are screened by Board Screening Panels and DLSC staff to determine if an investigation is warranted. Complaints that do not warrant investigation are closed, and those that appear to have merit or require further investigation are identified for investigative action and a case is opened.
  • Stage 2 — Investigation: The case is assigned to the DLSC investigator and attorney to develop an investigative plan. The investigative staff gathers necessary evidence and makes contacts with witnesses as needed. The case advisor is consulted on issues requiring professional expertise. The results of the investigation are provided to and discussed with the case advisor. Cases that do not warrant professional discipline are closed, while cases with violations proceed to the next stage for legal action. 
  • Stage 3 — Legal action: DLSC compliance attorneys review the results of the investigation and pursue disciplinary action when appropriate. Cases may resolve by means of stipulated agreements, informal settlement conferences or administrative warnings. The case advisor will be asked for assistance on matters involving professional expertise and for their opinion on appropriate case resolution. 
  • Stage 4 — Hearing: A formal legal process results if no satisfactory resolution is available at the Legal Action stage. DLSC attorney litigates the case before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ issues a proposed decision that is reviewed by the credentialing board. If a violation is found, discipline may be imposed. Disciplinary orders may include reprimand, limitation, suspension and revocation. 
And while the practice of being almost illegal or almost a violation of the Code does not break the law or violate the Code, the court of public opinion will be the judge and jury. While the memory of the public is not always long for certain egregious behavior, the public tends to have a long and vivid memory about the lack of professionalism in the single-largest transaction of their lives. 

A REALTOR® is only as good as his or her reputation. Therefore, continue to honor your personal standards of ethics and professionalism. And yes, there will be a bump, a swerve or a stop that will prove that dancing around the law and the Code of Ethics taunting “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” comes with consequence.

Cori Lamont is Director of Regulatory Affairs for the WRA.

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