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Ethics In Negotiation and Your Obligations

For many people entering a negotiation session for the first time, they fall into one of two categories. The first - defensive, passionate and largely unyielding. The second - hesitant, overwhelmed, and concerned with what their ethical boundaries and obligations are. Often, it can even be a combination of the two, because even the most righteous of us recognise that an element of humanity underpins our negotiations. Just how much are we obliged to disclose? How much white lying (or omission of the truth) is appropriate in a negotiation situation?

Ethics in negotiation are a grey area at best for many people, but luckily there’s a strong system of terminology for us to recognise these dilemmas and respond

appropriately. When the ball is in your court during a negotiation, ethical concerns can span from “what can I legally admit or omit,” to “what can I admit or omit and still face myself in the mirror”.

When selling an appliance or maybe a piece of gardening equipment on Facebook Marketplace, are you obliged to tell the buyer about any operational issues or bugs it may have? What about any probable issues the item may have in the near future? Does this change if the buyer asks you directly about the item’s condition?

There are many angles to consider the situation from, particularly when it comes to even larger negotiations. What if you’re selling a business, and you know that there is little appetite for the product or service anymore in your area?

Often, external factors will come into play here. Your relationship with the buyer, for instance, can change how willing you are to decorate the truth. The platform through which you’re negotiating can also have it’s own measures to mitigate white lies; for example, on eBay you must list the condition of the item you are selling (new, used, refurbished, damaged, etcetera). If your item doesn’t reflect the condition you’ve listed, you are liable for refunding the buyer and possibly facing a penalty on your eBay account.

It’s where ethics meets the law that we really must pay attention. For each particular

scenario, there will be unique legal obligations to take into account. Take for example a company that hacks into the database of its takeover target, in order to gain private information that will assist in its bid. Or the eco-warrior who trespasses on private property and chains themselves to a tree, hoping to gather publicity and put pressure on the property developer to change their plans. But what happens when you are negotiating privately, and there are no rules to the game?

For some, there may not provide an ethical dilemma at all. For others, it can be quite a challenge to determine where your ethical obligations lie. It can be helpful to consider at which point in the negotiation does a conflict of interest arise when it comes to detailing information up front - how far does your moral obligation stretch when your personal economic benefits are in question? The answer will change for everyone.

Rarely do we find that we are complete saints or sinners, rather we fall somewhere on the spectrum and where we fall is a unique reflection on our personal value systems. Our human side also likes to seek out opportunities and justifications we can tell ourselves to feel better about not being entirely truthful. If you’re confused about how ethically upstanding you feel the need to be in a negotiation, there are a few helpful ways to think about it; would I proudly tell my friends about this? Would I wear it on a t-shirt? The answers to questions like these can teach us more about ourselves than we think!


For more information about how to negotiate effectively, or for assistance with your next negotiation, contact us for a no obligation discussion.

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