The Negotiator Magazine

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Negotiation Ethics: A Matter of Common Sense

Steven P. Cohen

Commonly held assumptions reflect negatively on the ethics of the negotiation tactics of car salespeople, lawyers, horse traders, and other people who have a reputation of trying to influence folks into reaching agreements by misrepresenting facts. This kind of stereotyping has attached itself to people from different countries, ethnic groups, ­ or even as reflected in the expression from the 60s: “Don¹t trust anyone over 30.”  

Negotiation is about many things. One of its central elements is convincing others to accept the accuracy or reality of information that will influence their decision.  Most negotiators know that it is, indeed, possible to influence people by lying to them.  But good negotiators also realize that when other parties find out they¹ve been on the receiving end of lies, the lying negotiator¹s credibility goes down the tubes.

There’s an old expression: “If you cheat me once, shame on you.  If you cheat me twice, shame on me.”  People who’ve been taken in by dishonesty resent it. If they are able, they try to get out of deals where there’s been misrepresentation.  

Lying is certainly not the only way negotiators can behave badly.  Working on people who are at a disadvantage in other ways ­ psychologically needy, uninformed, insecure in their understanding of their relative power in the negotiation, unaware of rights and/or protections available ­ offers unscrupulous negotiators further ways to work unethically to achieve their goals.  Here again, the techniques associated with these sorts of circumstances can convince people to make agreements that are against their interests.  The question has to be, is this unethical behavior an appropriate approach to negotiation?

One may conclude that the end justifies the means, that anything that will yield a favorable agreement is appropriate.  After all, “All’s fair in love and war.” There is, however, a problem with that: negotiation is not war.  While in medieval times aristocrats would hire knights or mercenaries to settle disputes by waging war, as time has gone by people who have a disagreement have come to rely on lawyers to “wage law” to reach a conclusion. Now, as people and companies recognize the many costs of litigation, negotiation as well as mediation and other alternative dispute resolutions is used to resolve conflicts.

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September 2004