I was ending a session of The Smart Negotiator® with an exercise entitled: Ethical Questions for Negotiators. It is always interesting to conduct this exercise because ethical behavior is so subjective by nature. The discussions are usually spirited but in the end the audience usually arrives at a sound conclusion. However, this particular group wandered into some interesting territory. For the first time a group didn’t make the clear distinction between ethical behavior and unethical behavior. They split hairs instead and made the distinction between what was “unprofessional” v. “unethical.” The audience believed that a negotiator’s usage of a variety of questionable methods (tricks) to achieve a deal was the employment of “strategy” rather than simply a negotiator acting in an “unethical” manner. They didn’t buy into the notion that when a negotiator uses questionable methods strategically to gain an advantage it is unethical. They were more comfortable with the hybrid concept of “unprofessional” to describe this type of negotiator. For example I posed the question “is it acceptable to manipulate deadlines to put the other party at a disadvantage?” The audience concluded that it was a clear strategy and there was the possibility that it could be unprofessional but would not go as far as identifying this behavior as unethical. In the 21st Century have we just grown used to bad behavior in the negotiation process to the point that the color of the unethical has turned completely grey? Or can this whole discussion be summed up in the words of a half-dead folk singer: “the times they are a changing.”
I will leave you to ponder the quandary for yourself: if a negotiator genuinely believes in the concepts of partnership, relationship building, diversity and win-win how could you split the hair of ethical behavior? Consequently, it is the opinion of this author that in many cases the concept of strategy is being used as deodorant in order to rationalize unethical behavior. When does it stop being strategic and become unethical? I think if you have to ask this question you are probably already in some precarious territory. It reminded me of the moment of clarity that came over me when presidential candidate Bill Clinton was asked about drug use. He claimed that he “tried marijuana but didn’t inhale” (ba da bing ba da boom!).
I have listed some of the Ethical Questions for Negotiators from the exercise for your personal use. Read through each one and draw your own conclusions based on your personal ethical compass. I look forward to your responses.
- Is it acceptable to use coercion (power, threats or brand) in a negotiation to get the other party to concede?
- Is there a difference between truth-honesty-full disclosure?
- Is it acceptable to manipulate deadlines to put the other party at a disadvantage?
- Is it ethical to play “good guy” – “bad guy” in a negotiation?
- To deliberately ask for something that you really don’t want just to create tension and show concession behavior?
- As a prime is it acceptable to tell a subcontractor that “you need to take a 12% challenge or you are off of the program”?
- To make the other party travel a great distance, then hold the negotiation at 7:00AM?
- Is it acceptable to say “this is the best that I can do” when it isn’t the truth?
- If you are a good person is it ok to lie to the other party in a negotiation?