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Updated: 19 Jul 2024

The Unethical Side of Negotiation



Some sobering insights on the consequences of using unethical means to achieve results, and naturally advice to keep you on the high moral road.

‘The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple’ – Oscar Wilde

Welcome to the dark side! We are about to open the proverbial can of worms. This is not going to be a moralizing sermon, but you are going to be asked to look inside and find out where you stand.

It’s unlikely you lived thus far without being ‘taken for a ride’, or duped by someone. Who has made it this far in life life without telling a lie? Even if it’s only one of those little ‘white lies’, which many people accept as being socially acceptable. In the business world, there are those who readily take a Machiavellian approach of ‘The end justifies the means.’ Likewise, there are those individuals who relish describing the world of business as, ‘the concrete jungle’, or ‘It’s a dog eats dog world out there.’ Such euphemisms truly challenge the notion of a civilised society, don’t they?

These attitudes obviously persist today. They trickle down into our negotiations. Some people still employ unethical lying in negotiations at and away from the bargaining table. Business can be fiercely competitive, and a number of powerful influences can pressure well meaning negotiators to cross that fuzzy unethical line. So, let’s see if we can offer some objective insights and consequences, when we find ourselves teetering on this topsy-turvy ethical line between right and wrong.

Two Choices

There are multiple gambits used in deception, such as misrepresentation,hard nosed bargaining,good guy/bad guy, or referring the matter to a higher authority. When dealing with what you perceive as unethical behavior, many negotiators often opt for one of two choices in how they respond.

1. Grin and Bear it

We simply accept the unruly behavior of the other side. The likelihood of negotiating a favourable deal from your perspective, will probably diminish if we try and appease the other side. This approach mostly never works in our favor. If anything, appeasing the other side will probably encourage our counterpart’s behavior to be less cooperative. Appeasement may even encourage them to up the ante to obtain an even more favourable agreement for their own side.

2. When Push Comes to Shove

This means that we might begin to mirror the other side’s tactics. In this scenario, both sides get into each other’s face, with neither willing to back down.The parties are likely to see both their positions harden, and if anything, escalate the rhetoric. The possibility of reaching an agreement will diminish, and there is an even greater likelihoodof one or both sides, breaking off the talks altogether.


So, what tactics of our own can we use to deal with unethical behavior without falling into the two scenarios above?

Recognise and Know the Different Kinds of Unethical Gambits

We first have to be able to recognize what they are doing. Knowing the many different kinds of unethical gambits which can be used against us is important. You can’t play a counter move if you don’t recognize the game. We must make sure we understand when these tactics are being used, otherwise they might be successfully used against us.

Never Attack, But Definitely Challenge

Posing a direct challenge to our counterpart is likely to appear as a personal affront. Nobody likes to be caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, so approach the problem from a different slant.

The more productive approach is not to directly attack the person who is behind the gambit. If we give our counterpart an out, by challenging the problem gambit as an issue in itself, without making it personal, we will have a better opportunity to negate the tactic. In other words, we give them the chance to save face. Secondly, our counterpart will come to quickly realize that they aren’t dealing with a naive patsy.

Know Your BATNA

Always remember that you have alternatives. One of our key alternatives is to simply walk away from the negotiation table. This tactic can be used to put our counterpart on notice that we do not feel they are taking the negotiations seriously. No one has to put up, or tolerate the unprofessional use of unethical tactics in the first place. We need to make our counterpart awa re of the possibility, that we might walk away from the negotiation altogether. By doing so, we allow them a cooling off period to re-evaluate their tactics.

Play your Game – Not Theirs

The best strategy is to counter any derogatory gambit they might try against your position and objectives. Don’t let emotion sway you as this is the surest way to get off track.

Always remember the purpose and the objectives, of why we entered into these talks in the first place. We are seeking to achieve a better deal for our company or constituents. This is our only purpose. If they persist by playing outside the rules, then we should legitimately challenge ourselves as to whether these are the players we want to be considering as partners. If there are no other choices or few options available, then our purpose is still to make the best deal possible or simply walk away.

It’s Your Future

The final issue we want to consider, is our reputation. This will not be the final negotiation we will enter into with other people. We must ask ourselves how we want to be perceived and how others will view our reputation. Do we want to be remembered as being emotional, unreasonable or unprincipled? It is a serious question to ask ourselves because there will be ramifications down the way.


If we are viewed as unprincipled or unreasonable, then how do we think negotiators will deal with us in future talks? Using unethical means to achieve results, may be productive in the short term, but we have a lengthy career ahead of us.It’s like they say – ‘What goes around – Comes around!

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    I have two storage units I have rented for 7 years with zero problems. We have new owners, and they have "new terms" The problem is some of their terms are absurd. For example, they want to be able to cut the locks off of our units and enter at just about any time they "deem" something "could be amiss." They will no longer allow prescription or non-prescription medicine on the premises, such as… what if a person is having a heart attack and needs, I think it's nitroglycerin, or what if a diabetic needs his/her insulin while on the premises. If they BELIEVE that their "MIGHT BE" "hazardous" materials or "nuicenses" on the premises, they want to be able to just go into your unit at will. They do not define what "hazardous" or "nuicense" means …. TO THEM. They want customers to take on the liability of anything THEY do intentionally or through neglect that causes harm to the customer's property, and it goes on and on. It is absurd and ridiculous. The problem is, there are only 2 storage facilities in my town, and the other one is full, so I think they know that they sort of have us "over a barrel," so to speak, not to mention I have lots of stuff to move. Are there any suggestions out there for the best way to negotiate?

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