Students Against Vector Exploitation, a group made up of students across the United States and Canada, claimed they were tricked and cheated by Vector Marketing, a distributor of Cutco cutlery products.
The group claimed Vector used enticing yet deceptive tactics to get college students to attend interviews and sell kitchen knives.
“I needed a summer job, so I called and went in for an interview,” said David Ferris, a sophomore at Columbia University and the group’s cofounder. “Up to that point, no one really explained what the job was about except that it had something to do with sales, so I was a little suspicious of the company.”
Ferris got involved with Vector during the summer of 2002.
Now he warns fellow students about the company’s apparently fraudulent ways.
“My suspicions were largely confirmed at the so-called interview. The whole thing was basically a sales pitch for the job, ridden with corporate propaganda and deceptive tactics designed to convince kids that it was some kind of miracle job, which it certainly is not,” he said.
Like Ferris, most students interested in the advertised opportunity go through the interviewing process only knowing the company would pay them $13 and work around their school schedules.
“They say their receptionists can’t tell you details about the job because it takes 45 minutes to fully explain everything,” said Chad Hesselius, Students Against Vector Exploitation press relations. “But how long does it take to say ‘it isn’t employment, but instead it is a contract for you to call people up – starting with everybody you know – and solicit appointments, then go over to their house and sell them knives?’”
This omission of information from the receptionists give students only a little taste of what Vector’s business is about, Hesselius said.
“Why would they have to trick someone into hearing their sales pitch?” said Scott Greene, Cal State Fullerton marketing professor. “Wouldn’t word-of-mouth tout the benefits of working for them?”
However, Sarah Baker Andrus, director of academic programs for the company, said, “Vector managers are responding to this concern by providing receptionists with additional training on how to respond to questions more thoroughly without risking busy signals or unanswered calls.”
She also said students interested in applying should go to the company’s Web site.
“[People can find] basic information that provides the details for a responsible applicant who does his or her research,” she said.
When using a search engine online to locate Vector, Students Against Vector Exploitation’s Web site is among many that pop up, warning people of fraud and pending lawsuits.
“It’s easy to throw allegations and misrepresentations anonymously behind the screen of a complaint site,” Andrus said. “If you examine the site carefully, you will notice that the messages only come from very few individuals.”
Ferris said Vector’s Web site looks like many other corporate sites, chalked full of information and what looks like a chance to get a good job. However, he said, looks can be deceiving.
“The company’s success at hawking overpriced knives and deceiving unsuspecting sales reps is based on putting up a front of decency, respectability and opportunity,” he said. “In reality, Vector is only marginally different from a pyramid scheme – a shady, illicit business based on deception, exploitation and psychological trickery. This is necessary to convince people who don’t want or need new kitchen cutlery to buy it anyway and to coerce sales reps into conforming into the narrow corporate mold and disregard their ethical concerns over the door-to-door sales business.”
Although Ferris said Vector does door-to-door sales, the company’s director said this is not accurate.
“Door-to-door means knocking on the doors of house after house,” Andrus said. “Vector representatives conduct demonstrations of Cutco by pre-set appointments.”
The views of what telemarketing consists of are also conflicting.
“I believe telemarketing is when you get on the phone and solicit something and with Vector, in order to get your appointments, you must solicit over the phone,” Ferris said. “Vector says it isn’t telemarketing because you don’t actually take their money over the phone.”
He also said that the way Vector words the marketing pitch “gives you the idea that you won’t be going door-to-door to sell things and that you won’t be soliciting anything over the phone. To me, this is clearly misleading.”
Training becomes another issue because Vector does not hire students as employees but as independent contractors, which means that Vector doesn’t give payment to trainees.
“Employees are legally required to be paid for all their work, including training,” Hesselius said. “Vector says they don’t have to pay you for training because you are your own boss who doesn’t need employee labor laws like minimum wage, sick leave or employee rights like unemployment.”
He said he finds a fault in the claim that the people hired are classified as independent contractors because they are working for Vector, not their own business, making this claim inaccurate.
Andrus said she stands by the independent contractor claim.
“The definition of an independent contractor is clearly outlined in statute and the Vector sales rep position falls well within those specifications,” she said. “It is made clear during the interview that training is unpaid. Vector has not been found in violation of labor laws in this regard, despite Students Against Vector Exploitation’s allegations.”
Although former employees have filed and won some lawsuits against Vector, the government has had little involvement with SAVE’s fight against the company.
“The sad truth is that there is little anyone can do about those deceptive practices,” Professor Greene said. “Our government is supposed to control these things, including deceptive advertising, through the Federal Trade Commission.”
It is the government’s hands-off approach toward business regulation that is to blame for letting these deceptive practices continue, Greene said.
“The abuses of Vector Marketing and other companies like them demonstrate businesses that cannot be expected to be regulated simply by the marketplace,” he said.
Still, Andrus claims that Vector has done more good than harm.
“For every member of SAVE, I could introduce you to hundreds of Vector reps who have had a pleasant and successful experience,” she said. “As someone who comes from academe, and student services in particular, I could never remain with an organization like the one SAVE describes.”
Meanwhile, SAVE is growing, now with over 70 members online.
“We recently kicked off a campaign in Manhattan where we hand out fliers to potential workers at one of the biggest Vector offices in the country,” Ferris said. “The flier tells them about their rights and explains the side of the company that they won’t talk about in the brainwashing sessions Vector calls the interviewing process.”
When looking for a job, Greene said students should do research about the companies and job positions they are interested in applying for.
“If they (students) have not heard of the company that attracts their attention, ask around among friends, relatives and instructors,” he said. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/savecampaign/