Dear Negotiation Coach: Is Age a Factor to Bargaining in Good Faith?

How much do factors like age matter if we are bargaining in good faith? Do minors or their parents need to reveal that much?

By — on / Dealmaking

bargaining in good faith

Perhaps even more than in person, bargaining in good faith is essential in negotiations conducted through email. With no visual cues or body language, there can be numerous assumptions, both beneficial and otherwise, that can impact a deal between two people. Such was the case in a recent question we received regarding whether age should be an issue in a negotiation.

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How much do we need to reveal to uphold a commitment to bargaining in good faith?

Q:My daughter is negotiating via e-mail to hire a professional artist in the Netherlands to create cover art for a game book she created and will sell online. The price the artist quoted is high, but appropriate given his skills. My daughter, who is funding the project with her savings, is preparing to make a counteroffer. Should my daughter reveal that she is only 14 years old? I say yes, as this information might prompt the artist to reduce his fee. My daughter says no, for fear of not being taken seriously as a negotiator or “employer.” What do you think?

A: Your question is a fascinating one, and increasingly relevant as we work with one another virtually across time zones and cultures. In many ways, the Internet levels the playing field: If you can produce the product or pay me on time, I may not care whether you are 14 or 41, male or female, or even human or a cat with particularly fine typing skills.

Your letter raises two questions. The first is whether your daughter has an ethical obligation to disclose her age, putting the artist on notice that his contract is with a minor and thus might be unenforceable. You might want to check with your lawyer, but I think this contract would be enforceable. Although a minor can cancel a contract with an adult, if she doesn’t cancel within a reasonable period of time, the contract is considered ratified, making it binding. Once the artist begins the work (and certainly once he completes it), your daughter will be bound. Remind her that wanting to be treated as an adult means behaving like one—that is, she must follow through on her promise to pay the artist whether she loves the end product or not.

The more interesting question is whether it is strategically advantageous for your daughter to reveal her age. On the plus side, if the artist likes her project or the idea of helping out a young person, then revealing her age may satisfy some of his emotional interests. It also gives the artist a face-saving way to agree to charge less than he would otherwise, because he can distinguish this project from others and justify it as a special case.

But your daughter is right that revealing her age isn’t without risk. The artist may not care one way or another, or may even feel slightly “tricked” at not being told earlier in their conversation and that you and your daughter are not bargaining in good faith. He may worry that your daughter doesn’t have the funds to cover the project or won’t hold up her end of the bargain. He may think that her standards are low or that the project isn’t important, and thus spend less time on it than he might otherwise. Your daughter can mitigate some of these risks by demonstrating that she has the needed funds and is familiar with the quality of the artist’s other work.

Disclosing information in negotiation often carries risks as well as rewards. Let me conclude with a hunch that might help tip the balance. As her parent, you have some interests here as well: that your daughter be treated fairly, that she handle the situation well and continue to bargain in good faith, and that she learn from the experience. And your daughter has interests vis-à-vis you: that you trust her judgment as a young adult, that you guide rather than control. This suggests not that you hover protectively, but that you give her space to set her own strategy and perhaps make her own mistakes. The most important negotiation in this case is probably between you and her, as you negotiate your evolving role in her life as both adviser and appreciative audience.

Have you come across similar situation in negotiations? What eventually happened?

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