Golden Rule Ethics
Est. time: 15 min.
- Recognizing moral issues in negotiation
- Defining your ethical standards before you negotiate
- Negotiating with people who do not share your perspective
Every time we go to the bargaining table, we implicitly decide how much (if anything) we owe other parties—and why. For example:
- Should we worry about the fairness of the outcome?
- Must we always be honest? How much should we reveal?
- Is it all right use pressure tactics to force someone to come to agreement?
These are not easy questions. Often it’s not a matter of choosing between right and wrong. Rather it requires balancing competing responsibilities—responsibilities to ourselves, to others, and to the organizations on whose behalf we negotiate. Such choices also require clear-eyed assessments of the situations in which we find ourselves and the people with whom we deal. Most of all, they demand recognition of our own core values.
These issues should not be addressed on the fly. Going into a negotiation, we should know what our obligations are—to ourselves and to others—and where ethical boundaries must be set.
Here is a short video about Jim Golden, a personal injury lawyer who made a profound change in how he negotiates in order to align his approach with his personal values. Watch the short clip and then consider the questions that follow.
Take a few moments to think about the first question. Then click on the button below it for some brief comments. Do the same for the two questions that follow.
Many of our important negotiations occur in the workplace. We negotiate on behalf of our company when we deal with customers and when seek goods or services from vendors. Lawyers likewise negotiate to advance the interests of their clients. In the parlance of economists, we negotiate as agents, acting to maximize the welfare of our principals.
Difficult moral issues arise when an agent’s values are not fully aligned with the entity they represent. Concern about the fairness of an outcome is exemplary, provided that the negotiator bears the cost of being generous. But an employee who makes a concession to an outside party in the name of fairness, spends the company’s money, not their own.
That is not to say that people should park their own principles at the door when they go to work. Far from it. But before undertaking a negotiation, they should reach a clear understanding with the superior about what they are—and are not—willing to do when they are negotiating for others.
- Max H. Bazerman; Dolly Chugh; Mahzarin R. Banaji, When Good People (Seem to) Negotiate in Bad Faith, HBP Newsletters, October 1, 2005.
- Horacio Falcao, Video: The Art of the Deal: Is Ethics in the Picture?, INSEAD, March 14, 2011.
- Jim Golden, The Negotiation Counsel Model, Negotiation Journal, 24:3, 371-78, July 2009.
- Deepak Malhotra, Smart Alternatives to Lying in Negotiation, HBP Newsletters, May 1, 2004.
- Carrie Menkel-Meadow and Michael Wheeler, eds., What’s Fair? Ethics of Negotiation, Jossey-Bass, 2004.
- Robert Mnookin, Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, Simon and Schuster, 2010.
- Todd Rogers, Richard Zeckhauser, Francesca Gino, Maurice Schweitzer and Mike Norton, Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others, HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP14-045, September 2014.
- G. Richard Schell, Ch. 11, “Bargaining with the Devil Without Losing Your Soul: Ethics" in Negotiation, Bargaining for Advantage, Penguin 2006.
- Michael A. Wheeler, Fair Enough? An Ethical Fitness Quiz for Negotiators, HBP Newsletters, March 1, 2004.