Ethics in Negotiation: How to Avoid Deception in Employment Negotiations

Would you be tempted to use deception in negotiation?

By on / BATNA


Ethics in negotiation can involve expectations of fairness, equity, and honesty but, sometimes, despite your best intentions, one or more of these four forces might lead you to behave unethically during job offer negotiations.

1. The lure of temptation

Whether or not negotiators lie depends in part on how lucrative the rewards are, Ann E. Tenbrunsel has found in her research. In one of her studies, participants played the role of a partner in a two-partner firm that was being dissolved. They were asked to provide “honest” estimates of the market share of their products to help determine how to divide the firm’s equity between the two partners.

Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.

Some participants were told that if they were awarded the most equity, they would receive $1; others were told they would receive $100 in the same instance. Those promised only $1 misrepresented their honest estimates 41% of the time; by contrast, those promised $100 misrepresented their estimates 69% of the time. The higher reward provided a significant temptation to lie.

Similarly, the larger the bribe, the more likely we are to take it, Harvey Hegarty of Indiana University and Henry Sims of the University of Maryland has found.

When it comes to job offer negotiations, the more desirable the job, the more likely you are to lie about having better offers. It seems our negotiation ethics are more fluid than we’d like to believe.

2. Uncertainty’s attraction

Uncertainty increases the likelihood that we will be unethical, Roy J. Lewicki of Ohio State University and other researchers have noted. Uncertainty about the material facts in a negotiation can inspire unethical behavior.

In another study using the two-partner situation described above, Tenbrunsel led negotiators to be either fairly certain or fairly uncertain about the honest estimate of the market share of their products. Rather than providing more cautious estimates, uncertain negotiators actually provided more aggressive, less honest estimates than the more confident group.

It seems that in a job offer negotiation, uncertainty about the possibility of a better offer could increase the likelihood that you would falsely claim to have other offers.

Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.

3. The power of powerlessness

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said historian Lord Acton, yet studies show that a lack of power is more likely to lead us to behave unethically.

Consider that outside alternatives to agreement are a strong source of power in negotiation (see BATNA for more details). In their research, Tenbrunsel and David Messick of Northwestern University found that a lack of outside options increased negotiator deception.

In one study, participants acted as managers negotiating with potential clients. When managers were told they had relatively few other potential clients, they were more likely to misrepresent information than when they were told they had plenty of potential clients. No wonder, then, that a job applicant lacking other solid offers might be tempted to claim that she has many.

4. Anonymous victims

Suppose that your job offer negotiation is with several people – a recruiter, the human resources manager, the division president, and the director of sales. When negotiating with this group, you’d be more likely to lie than when negotiating with one person, research by Tenbrunsel, Kristina A. Diekmann of the University of Utah, and Charles Naquin of DePaul University suggests.

In one study, participants were presented with an ethical dilemma and were faced with deciding whether to lie to their opponent. For half the participants, that opponent was an individual; for the other half, that opponent was represented by a group of individuals. Participants with a group of opponents lied 73% of the time; those with individual opponents lied only 36% of the time.

Probing further, the research team found that negotiators perceive interactions with groups to be less personal than interactions with individuals, a perception that they believe justified increased unethical behavior when dealing with groups.

Have you ever experienced and ethical dilemma during a business negotiation?

Adapted from “When You’re Tempted to Deceive” by Ann E. Tenbrunsel and Kristina A. Diekmann for the July 2007 issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.

Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2013.

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