Having taught ethics to CPA societies and in other venues I make use of my own texts and also those of Linda Fisher Thornton with her book, 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.  This commentary makes use of these sources and an article from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation written by Katie Shonk entitled Ethics in Negotiation: Avoid Complicity in Wrongdoing. In negotiations this implies not committing illegal and immoral acts, but also calling out unethical behavior of others. Shonk’s article highlights Max Bazerman’s book, Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop. You only have one reputation. You need to protect that all costs. So, what do you do? Read on.




In Shonk’s article she shares the story of Elizabeth Holmes who made claims she could develop up to 200 blood tests with one finger stick and sold the idea to investors, Walgreens, and others. The result… Holmes has been sentenced to 11 years and 3 months in prison after bilking over $121 million from others.  Investors were taken in by a charismatic leader. The public can fall for the false claims of powerful people. It pays to be suspicious and not accept claims. As President Reagan famously said regarding the USSR, “trust but verify.” This holds true in ethical negotiations. You may overlook your own privilege, be too trusting, wanting to believe even in things that do not make sense on the false hope that it will be OK. In my blog on December 19th regarding cultural differences one of the key faults found by Americans on international negotiations is that Americans often are too trusting as taken from this article on Unlocking Cross-Cultural Differences in Negotiation.


What are various ethical responsibilities?


When you think about ethical attributes you likely think about attributes such as honesty, integrity, empathy, caring for others, fairness, civic duty, loyalty, respect for others, personal accountability, promise-keeping, pursuit of excellence and others. From a practical perspective how, you apply these is a learning journey and in reality, a business advantage to you if you can consistently apply these attributes to your business responsibilities. What are your ethical business responsibilities?

Your ethical responsibilities apply to seven key areas. These are profit, law, character, people, communities, planet, and the greater good.

Your business has to turn a profit in order to survive. The question is how much profit and at what cost to various stakeholders? Relative to the law do you focus on avoiding penalties, honoring principles, or do you reach beyond that? Is your character grounded in integrity and morality values? How would others see you by your thoughts, words, and deeds? Do you set an example for others? Are you concerned about others and respecting differences? Do you operate out of caring about people and avoiding harm? Do you have concern for helping those in need and your community? Do you build strong relationships? Do you serve others in society? Do you respect life and nature? Are you conserving natural resources and doing business that is sustainable? Finally, are you grounded in a greater good than yourself and are you oriented to benefiting society and future generations in order to make this world a better place? These are tough questions They need to be asked. How does all of this relate to ethical decision making in a negotiation?


Ethics in negotiations


               The hard negotiator

In negotiations you may encounter a hard negotiator. This party may be adversarial, make threats, want victory over wise outcomes, insist on position rather compromise, and promote distrust. This party may enjoy applying pressure, be hard on the people, demand concessions and one sided gains such as price concessions and even mislead relative to the bottom line. So how can you overcome this ethically?

               The principled negotiator

You need to remain principled and call out unethical behavior. Success has to do with a resolution that makes sense. Focus on the problem and solving the problem before you. How could you look at this differently and what else can you bring up to help the unprincipled with seeing this from a different perspective (future contracts, reputation, perceptions). Explore interests behind their position. Trust but verify. Do not take anything at face value alone. Focus on standards independent of will. Yield to logic and principles, but not to pressure. Be gentle on the people and hard on the problem. Separate people from the problem. Focus on interests. Create alternatives. Produce alternatives for mutual gain now and into the future. You can always decide later. You do not have to decide what to do. Avoid having a bottom line. Instead keep an open line of communication.


An example


As a negotiator and mediator, I assist clients as not a problem solver, but rather as a solution provider. Depending on whether I am helping my client in a negotiation or acting as a true neutral as a mediator between parties, key elements relate to building a relationship and  actively listening. For the unethical party in a negotiation or mediation questions like:

  • Is it possible that what you are suggesting may leak out? In today’s world the answer is yes.
  • If others knew you were taking this approach might this negatively impact other stakeholders (shareholders, employees, customers or clients, vendors, the public, others)?
  • Do you care about your reputation?
  • How may others react to what it is you are suggesting?
  • Could what you are suggesting be misconstrued or be perceived negatively by others?

Note that I am not judging here. Rather I am simply asking questions, because in today’s world information and transparency are capable of impacting others very quickly. Sometimes being that person in the room to raise questions about what may be perceived as unethical behavior and calling it out can have a significant impact on the negotiation. That has been my experience having been in over 2,500 mediations and negotiations over my career.

These articles and texts presented here really hit home with me. Having learned these lessons, I wanted to share this information with you to help you overcome tendencies to react to unethical behavior not to avenge or retaliate, but rather stay calm, confident, and competent by taking the high road. Stick to the high road and avoid getting into the mud with pigs. Good luck. Please let me know what you think.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]