How Subtle Favoritism Harms Negotiators

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Adapted from “The Robin Hood Effect in Negotiation,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, March 2009.

Business transactions often occur between people of different socioeconomic levels, and our choice of clothing, cars, and other material possessions can signal such differences. We may attempt to treat everyone equally in our negotiations, but do we always succeed?

Just as we sometimes envy those who seem privileged, we also can feel empathy toward those who remind us of ourselves. To find out whether empathy promotes unethical behavior, researchers Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Lamar Pierce of Washington University in St. Louis turned to a market in which fraud is prevalent: vehicle emissions testing. Studying a database from a metropolitan area, they found that a significant number of emissions inspectors fraudulently passed standard vehicles on emissions tests much more often than they fraudulently passed luxury cars. These “Robin Hood inspectors,” as Gino and Pierce call them, were more lenient toward customers who appeared to be less wealthy, as signaled by the cars these customers owned.

Why the preferential treatment? In a lab experiment, the researchers discovered that empathy toward peers (standard-car owners) and envy toward the wealthy (luxury-car owners) prompted illegal favoritism of owners of standard cars. And in a related set of studies, Gino and Pierce found that the mere presence of wealth-a pile of money sitting on an experimenter’s desk-caused participants to feel envious and cheat more frequently on a written task than they would otherwise.

Whenever you or your employees are negotiating with counterparts who seem more privileged than you are, be aware of the possibility that you might unwittingly engage in wealth-based discrimination. And whether they are aware of it or not, negotiators also may be tempted to unfairly reward those similar to them. Remember that subtle favoritism can be just as damaging as overt discrimination. You can reduce opportunities to deceive by holding negotiators accountable for their decisions, monitoring their behavior, and fostering an organizational culture that rewards impartiality.

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