Ethics in Negotiation: How to Avoid Unethical Behavior

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Ethics in negotiation is a hotly debated issue. There are those who believe that you should be fair and truthful at all times. Then there are those who argue that bargaining is like a game of poker. Whichever side you fall on, it’s difficult to argue against the importance of reputation at the negotiating table.

Unethical behavior is perhaps the greatest threat to how people see you as a negotiator. Think about it. Would you be willing to bargain with someone who lies and cheats? It pays to find out the best negotiation course tips to use to avoid crossing ethical boundaries. First, let’s look at examples of unethical conduct and its causes.

Examples of Unethical Behavior

Deception is one of the most common forms of unethical negotiation behavior. Deceit at the bargaining table comes in different forms. According to Richard Shell, Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, here are the most common:

Lies about bottom lines and alternatives

Lying about what you’re willing to pay or accept, or options you have. For example, “I can offer X amount,” or “I have three other offers for twice as much.” If you deviate from the boundary you’ve set up, your future positions won’t be believed.

“Too good to be true” offers

When a deal is way better than it should be. For example, when you buy a home in an expensive neighborhood for much less than the asking price.

Further requests before signing off the deal

When the person you are negotiating with requests additional resources (time, money, or effort) before signing. In many countries, this includes bribes.

Lack of mutual exchange

As negotiation course facilitators frequently advise, at the bargaining table, you give to receive. If the other side does not respond in kind, it may create an ethical dilemma. For this reason, in the USA, management are legally bound to move past their first offer when negotiating with a union or workers’ representative.

Last-minute nibbling

A last-minute nibble is a request that comes right before you sign a deal. These requests are often small, hence the name. However, as Shell points out, these requests can eat into your margins. Nibbles play on our psychological weaknesses, as we’re far more likely to say “yes” to a small request right after agreeing to something big, or when we’re on the verge of signing the deal.

Causes of Unethical Dealings

Research shows that unethical behavior stems from two sources. One is from actions that actors don’t recognize as unethical. The other is from conduct that they know is immoral. Each has its causes, which we shall review below.

Scholars refer to conscious acts of immoral conduct as intentional unethical behavior. Situational forces like power and opportunity are some of the most common causes of unplanned immoral conduct. Social motivations, which stem from factors like social norms, are another.

Unintentional unethical behavior is when people act against their moral values without realizing it. Research shows that most people fall under this category, and “ethical fading” is the most common reason why.

Tenbrunsel and Messick define ethical fading as: “The process by which the moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.” In other words, the ethical aspects of a decision “fade” from a person’s view. Researchers say this happens subconsciously, and only under certain conditions. Psychologists liken ethical fading to moral disengagement, a process where a person manages to convince themselves that ethics don’t apply. When this happens, people are able to minimize the guilt they might feel from violating ethical standards. Ford’s Fiesta and Focus cover-up is an example of ethical fading.

Maintaining Ethics 

Use the following bargaining tips to reduce the risk of crossing your moral boundaries.

Increase your negotiation power

You’re more likely to be dishonest when you feel powerless. Negotiation power comes from technical knowledge and preparation. So, take time to improve your bargaining skills, whether through a structured course or self-learning, and be sure to prepare well before each meeting.

Adopt a collaborative approach

Collaborative negotiation focuses on the process as well as the outcome. Research shows that when negotiators take a collaborative mindset, they are less likely to engage in ethically questionable behavior. So, before you enter talks, find out how to create mutual benefits.

Build relationships

Studies show that when you bargain with strangers, you’re more willing to use questionable tactics. So, take the time to get to know the other negotiator. Relationship-building creates trust, which helps secure desired actions from others.

Be aware of any unconscious biases

How you view the other side can impact your bargaining tactics. Question your perceptions to avoid painting the other side in an unfair light.

Think twice

It’s common for people to get carried away in the heat of the moment and to say things they shouldn’t. So, train yourself to take a step back before speaking to ensure you won’t regret your words later.