Negotiation Ethics: What’s Gender Got to Do with It?

The strength of our negotiation ethics may vary depending on our gender, according to one study. Here’s why this may be the case—and advice on how we can all live up to our high standards.

By — on / Dealmaking

ethics compass

Are there gender differences in our negotiation ethics? Women generally are less accepting of unethical behavior than men are and tend to behave more ethically than men in a wide variety of contexts, past studies have found. In the context of negotiation ethics, women have been found to be less tolerant overall of a wide array of unethical strategies as compared with men. In a 2012 study by Michael P. Haselhuhn and Elaine M. Wong of the University of California, Riverside, 25% of men used deception to negotiate a deal via email as compared with only 11% of women.

In a 2017 study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Jessica A. Kennedy (Vanderbilt University), Laura J. Kray (University of California, Berkeley), and Gillian Ku (London Business School) looked more closely at possible gender differences in negotiation ethics and found nuanced results.


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Relationship goals

The researchers hypothesized that women internalize morality into their identities more strongly than men do. As compared with men, women are more likely to view themselves as interdependent with others and to be more attuned to relationships and others’ emotions. Generally speaking, men tend to define themselves as more independent and less reliant on others.

“Because being moral helps people build and maintain relationships,” Kennedy and her colleagues write, “women are likely to adopt goals and values that promote the welfare of others. Over time, these goals and values may translate into identifying strongly as a moral person.” Because people with stronger moral identities tend to behave more ethically, the researchers hypothesized that women also would care more about ethics in negotiation.

The researchers found support for their theorizing in several experiments—at least, under certain conditions. In one experiment, the researchers measured participants’ sense of moral identity, in part by asking how important it was for them to have certain characteristics associated with morality, such as being caring, fair, generous, helpful, and so on. Next, participants read a negotiation scenario involving the sale of a used car that had one minor and one major mechanical problem. The researchers then measured participants’ degree of moral disengagement—the extent to which they rationalized away unethical decisions—and assessed how committed participants were to negotiating ethically with a potential buyer of the used car.

Female participants internalized moral traits more strongly than male participants and were less likely than men to morally disengage from unethical negotiating strategies, the results showed. In addition, the women were significantly less supportive than the men of unethical negotiating tactics.

When money trumps negotiation ethics

Women don’t always display superior negotiation ethics. In a follow-up experiment, participants played the role of a hiring manager negotiating the salary of a job candidate. The participants were told that the job would be eliminated in six months due to a restructuring, a fact that the candidate did not know.

When participants didn’t have explicit financial incentives to reveal the information, women were more forthright than men about the short-term nature of the job in the simulation that followed. However, when participants were told they would receive $100 for negotiating the lowest salary, women were just as likely as men to behave unethically. Financial incentives eroded the women’s negotiation ethics.

The risks of unethical negotiating behavior

Overall, the findings suggest that women may be socialized to be more ethical negotiators than men. To the extent that unethical behavior by men helps them with value claiming in negotiation, this apparent gender difference may lead women to worse negotiation outcomes than men in some situations, the authors note. However, men could pay more of a price in the long term, as a pattern of unethical negotiating behavior can damage one’s reputation and limit negotiating opportunities.

In addition, when financial incentives to lie or cheat loom large, women may be tempted to focus more on maximizing profit than on adhering to their moral standards, the study by Kennedy, Kray, and Ku shows. This means that women, too, could eventually suffer the consequences of unethical negotiating tactics.

Toward stronger negotiation ethics and ethical behavior

How can we prompt more ethical behavior in ourselves, and how can our leaders encourage negotiators in their organization to behave more morally, regardless of their gender? In their book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman and University of Notre Dame professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel note that when we focus on the business rationale for a deal, its ethical dimensions tend to fade from our consciousness. And the less salient our ethics are, the more likely we will be to justify unethical behavior.

Thus, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel advise us to make ethical concerns salient in negotiation. Consider any financial or other motivations you might have to behave unethically, such as lying about a product’s capabilities to make a sale. Acknowledging this motivation should enable you to come up with a sales strategy that’s more aligned with your negotiation ethics.

What pitfalls surrounding ethics and negotiation have you learned to avoid?


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