This is the second time I’ve written to you (Rookie Realtor), and the last time was to blast you for your impression that ethics and professional standards were “just guidelines.” This time I don’t want to blast you, but I think you’re missing the whole concept around the idea of steering.

While it is difficult for us to understand today, people who thought that minorities should not live with the white majority often felt that way because they believed it was “better for all involved” if groups of different races or religions lived in separate areas. Champions of segregation rationalized their actions and thought of themselves as good, charitable, ethical people. The law says that no one, other than the potential purchaser, has the right to steer anyone to any specific sections because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical challenges.

What you call the crime, “Suggesting to a gay couple that they ‘might feel more comfortable’ if they focused their home-buying effort in a high-class part of town that’s widely known for its gay population,” is insulting on a number of levels, not the least of which is the implication that they would have difficulty being comfortable with their sexual orientation in a more diverse portion of the community. And the sexual orientation of the agent doesn’t make it less insulting.

In a series on BBC America called “The Office” an office manager makes a racially biased joke in front of a member of that minority. When a white employee objects to the joke, the manager asks the minority employee if they were offended. They reply that they were not, so the manager says to the objecting employee that the joke is obviously not offensive. The white employee stares at him in amazement and asks, “Do you have to be black to be offended at racism?”

If your friend’s clients had suggested to him that they would feel more comfortable in a specific type of area, his suggestions to them might have been appropriate, and would not have been steering. But when your friend decided that he knew where they would be more comfortable living, based upon his perception of their needs because of his interpretation of their ethnic, racial, religious background, or their sexual orientation, that was inappropriate, regardless of any commonality he or she might share with the consumer.

Even in your early example, your steering, while not illegal, is inappropriate and is not “good customer service.” For example, the person with “lit cigarette dangling from his mouth” might actually prefer not to eat where people are smoking, and your prejudgment of his preferences based upon a cursory examination might be inappropriate. And that tiny woman might be shopping for someone else, and you would be sending her to the wrong part of the store to address her needs. In either case, you should have taken a moment to find out what the needs of the customer were before you determined, without sufficient information, how those needs might be best served. Our job is not to guess what people want or need; it is to consult with them to learn what they want or need and to help them achieve those goals. I often define selling in our firm as “helping someone to do something in their best interest which they might not have done had we not been present” – but that doesn’t mean we get to decide what their best interests consist of, much less tell them what that might be.

In dealing with the concept of steering, we as professionals need to remember that it is not up to us to decide what would make our clients comfortable–it is up to them. If a Catholic couple indicates that they wish to live within a specific parish, it is acceptable to discuss parish boundaries. If a Jewish couple wishes to be within walking distance of a synagogue, it is appropriate to discuss the locations of synagogues with them. If a gay couple wishes to be in a community with a large gay population, that discussion would not be out of bounds; but in any of these cases, we need to follow the lead of the client, and not send them where we think they should be.

While you indicate that you, and the attorney hired by your friend, seem to feel that the agent in question did nothing wrong when he attempted to steer the gay couple because he was himself gay, I would respectfully disagree. While it might have been a more defensible case in court, it would not have made his actions appropriate. He was still pushing them in a direction indicated by his insecurities or prejudices, and not responding to their needs and requirements. Plainly put, anybody has the right to live anywhere they want, not where an agent thinks they should.

I agree that life contains many a slippery slope, and those are the paths we don’t want to start down because of where they end. Your friend doesn’t need to discuss his needs or personal life with his clients; he needs to find out what their needs and desires are. I hope he does that next time.

William Lublin is CEO of Century 21 Advantage Gold in Philadelphia.

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