Negotiation Journal and Reflections.
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Gunia, B. C. (2019) ‘Ethics in Negotiation: Causes and Consequences’, Academy of
Management Perspectives, 33(1), pp. 3–11. doi: 10.5465/amp.2018.0043.
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Ethics in Negotiation: Causes and Consequences
Why do negotiators act ethically or unethically? What happens after they do? Despite
accumulating evidence on the causes and consequences of ethical and unethical
behavior in non-negotiation situations, surprisingly few attempts have been made to
examine these issues systematically within the negotiation context. This is problematic
because it contributes to the somewhat stale viewpoint that unethical negotiation behavior
is both inevitable and uniformly harmful. It also impedes progress in both the negotiation
and the behavioral ethics literatures and limits our field's ability to train ethical negotiators.
As a step toward refreshing the field's perspective on the causes and consequences of
ethical and unethical negotiation behavior, the current symposium assembles four papers
by leading scholars of ethics and negotiation. Collectively, they aim to provide a bird's-eye
view on the numerous causes (e.g., moral character, ethical fading, environmental cues)
and surprisingly diverse consequences attending ethical and unethical negotiation, both
reviewing current knowledge and looking to the future. Overall, we suggest that unethical
behavior is not inevitable in negotiation nor necessarily detrimental for either negotiator.
Rather, science can reliably anticipate negotiators' ethical choices and the consequences
that attend them—and urgently should.
Keywords: ethical; unethical; negotiation
Why do negotiators act ethically or unethically? Despite a vast trove of psychological
research on the drivers of ethical and unethical behavior in non-negotiation situations (for
summaries, see ; ), surprisingly few attempts have been made to catalog and
theoretically ground the set of reasons why negotiators adopt ethical or unethical
approaches at the bargaining table. This is problematic because it contributes to the stale
yet prevalent view that, in negotiation, ethical behavior is impossible and unethical
behavior is inevitable. In addition to conflicting with the available evidence, this view
impedes progress in both the negotiation and the behavioral ethics literatures and limits
our ability to train ethical negotiators.
And what are the consequences of ethical or unethical negotiating? In terms of unethical
negotiating, the answer appears relatively obvious, as many studies have documented the
numerous negative consequences of deception for both the deceiver and the deceived.
Although deceptive negotiators may extract some short-term benefits (e.g., [ 3]; ; ),
deception is seen as quite detrimental overall. As just a few of the many examples,
deception reduces trust (e.g., ), prompts retaliation (e.g., [ 3]), and harms the
deceiver's economic outcomes ([ 7]).
The near consensus is illusory, however, as the great majority of the just-mentioned
papers study a very specific unethical behavior: self-interested deception in which an
individual overtly provides inaccurate information. We know much less about the many
other types of unethical behavior documented in psychological studies of non-negotiation
situations, and virtually nothing about the consequences of overt ethicality in negotiation.
This too is problematic, as it contributes to the equally stale viewpoint that deception in
negotiation is necessarily harmful, at least for the deceived and probably for the deceiver.
In addition to conflicting with some of the available evidence and impeding theoretical
progress, this view leaves us with few explanations for the proliferation of deception in real
We assembled the current symposium in hopes of refreshing the field's perspective on the
causes and consequences of ethical and unethical negotiation. In so doing, our goals
were to 1) identify insights from other fields (particularly psychology) that could advance
research on ethics in negotiation, 2) identify insights from negotiation that could advance
research in other fields (particularly macro-level management areas), and 3) promote
ethical negotiation in the real world. The four symposium papers, each written by authors
with expertise in both ethics and negotiation, briefly summarize the state of the art on a
particular aspect of ethics in negotiation. More important, each also offers a unique
perspective that challenges and advances our understanding of the topic. Finally, each at
least implicitly draws out the implications for related research areas, building missing
bridges and highlighting pressing and often intriguing areas for future research.
Three symposium papers consider causes of ethical and unethical negotiation, drawing
from the psychological and organizational behavior work on behavioral ethics to discuss
causes rarely studied in the negotiation literature: moral character (Morse & Cohen),
ethical fading (Rees, Tenbrunsel, & Bazerman), and environmental cues (Gunia). As a
group, these papers apply the psychological insight that personal and situational factors
interact to shape behavior in many situations () to ethics in negotiation. The final
symposium paper (Gaspar, Methasani, & Schweitzer) develops an integrative model
detailing the surprising diversity of consequences that attend negotiators' choice to
deceive. We include only one paper on consequences by design, as this paper assumes a
higher level of analysis, presenting a model that seeks to cover the current evidentiary
base in total. Collectively, the symposium aims to offer a bird's-eye view of the causes
and consequences of ethics in negotiation, both as we see them today and as the
contributors believe we should see them tomorrow.
In sum, this symposium seeks to move the scholarly conversation beyond the view that
unethical behavior is inevitable and uniformly harmful in negotiation. Instead, these papers
advance the innovative perspective that unethical as well as overtly ethical behaviors
arise among certain scientifically predictable individuals, because of certain predictable
situational factors, with certain predictable costs and benefits. We hope these ideas will
interest an array of scholars from across academic management.
In particular, we hope management scholars who do not specialize in negotiation will walk
away with a refined appreciation of the ethical choices and consequences that real
negotiators face, perhaps concluding that ethical negotiation is possible even though
unethical negotiation can be surprisingly beneficial. Additionally, we hope these scholars
find connections to their own work, particularly on topics related to ethics (e.g., value-
based decisions such as corporate social responsibility, consumer relations, and crisis
management) or negotiation (e.g., interdependent decisions such as top management
team interactions, strategic alliances, and CEO–board relations). Of course, we also hope
the symposium benefits scholars of negotiation and/or behavioral ethics, for whom it maps
out the landscape of causes and consequences in current research as well as the
numerous opportunities for future work. Finally, we hope the symposium interests
negotiation teachers and practitioners who wish to elicit ethical negotiation in the real
world, or at least understand the consequences of ethical and unethical negotiating.
Having summarized our collective aims and the papers' basic messages, the rest of this
introduction will discuss but not seek to rehash the individual papers. Each speaks clearly
on its own. Instead, I aim to draw out the key contributions and themes that emerge when
considering the papers in gestalt, noting novel connections and intriguing implications for
future research. In the process of detailing contributions arising specifically from the
causes or consequences sections, I will build up to a discussion of themes that emerge
from the whole symposium. The introduction concludes with a discussion of implications
for future research.
A final note before proceeding: Like most people who read the academic discourse on
ethical and unethical behavior, you may be wondering what those terms mean. The short
answer is that the symposium does not offer a unified definition. That is, these papers, like
many in the literature, adopt differing definitions. Two symposium papers (Gunia's and
Gaspar et al.'s) focus on one of the most socially agreed upon forms of unethical
behavior: deception. While few behavioral ethics scholars would dispute the
operationalization of unethical behavior as deception, this operationalization is also
relatively narrow. The other two papers take a broader view, focusing on a variety of
stable tendencies (Morse & Cohen) or observable behaviors (Rees et al.). This diversity of
definition is consistent with much of the behavioral ethics literature. Additionally, we
consider it a distinct strength, as it allows us to pose provocative questions such as "Can
we really define universally beneficial behaviors as unethical?" (implicit in Gaspar et al.)
and "Is ethical negotiating necessarily desirable?" (implicit in Rees et al.). So we
acknowledge the diversity but do not attempt to apologize for it, trusting our readers to
judge the adequacy of our definitions and understand the diversity of our viewpoints. In
closing, thank you for your interest. We hope you find our perspectives useful.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF CAUSES PAPERS: ETHICAL ≠ IMPOSSIBLE AND UNETHICAL
Negotiation practitioners and scholars have long assumed, at least implicitly, that
unethical behavior and negotiation go hand in hand. Put differently, many people with
varying perspectives on negotiation assume that ethical behavior is nearly impossible in
negotiation situations or, equivalently, that unethical behavior is nearly inevitable. For
example, a prominent practitioner-oriented article indicated that "when it comes to
negotiation, the process is often strewn with falsehoods and deception" ([ 1], p. 69).
Likewise, scholars have noted the ubiquity of deception in negotiations, sometimes finding
that deception occurs in the majority or even great majority of negotiation situations (e.g., [
These claims are striking for several reasons, one of which is the high degree of
consensus both within the scholarly community and across the scholarly–practitioner
divide. Few aspects of human behavior would seem to attract such widespread social
consensus. The assumption that negotiation = unethical behavior is also striking for its
contrast with the related but distinct behavioral ethics literature, which assumes that the
causes of deception are worthy of scientific study. In particular, this literature presumes
that science can reliably predict which people will act unethically and when they will do so.
If all negotiators in all negotiations deceive, the topic is not particularly interesting.
Luckily, the three symposium papers focusing on the causes of ethical and unethical
negotiating cast doubt on this conclusion, suggesting that unethical behavior arises
among certain scientifically predictable negotiators, because of certain predictable
features of the negotiation situation. In other words, the papers suggest that not all
negotiators act unethically, and not all negotiation situations call for unethical behavior.
One of the symposium's key contributions, then, is to cast doubt on the widespread
assumptions that ethical = impossible and unethical = inevitable in negotiation. Another is
to identify who the routinely ethical and unethical negotiators might be, as well as what the
ethically supportive and ethically treacherous negotiation situations might be.
So what do they say? Morse and Cohen's paper speaks to the first issue, suggesting that
individuals high in moral character are naturally prone to ethical negotiating, resisting the
sway of unethical behavior despite the distinct possibility that it might literally pay. The
other two papers on causes speak to the second issue: Rees and colleagues suggest that
certain predictable features of the negotiation situation (e.g., incentives, competition) can
contribute to ethical fading, which leads negotiators to display bounded ethicality. Gunia,
in turn, suggests that certain predictable features of the physical and temporal
environment surrounding the negotiators (e.g., money, time of day) can elicit both
distributive and deceptive negotiating. Although several of the papers mention interactions
between personal and situational factors (e.g., Morse and Cohen's discussion of moral
character in intergroup contexts), none focuses directly on this interaction—an important
direction for future research discussed below.
Collectively, these papers call the inevitability of unethical behavior into question, moving
toward a comprehensive, scholarly view of the factors that cause ethical and unethical
negotiating. In the process, they provide a powerful set of theoretical frameworks for
applying the many and varied findings from the behavioral ethics literature to negotiation.
Rees and colleagues' focus on bounded ethicality and fading, for example, provides a
lens for understanding how and why the psychological finding that groups lie more readily
than individuals ([ 5]) may apply to group negotiations.
In addition to questioning the inevitability of unethical negotiating, these papers also
question its intentionality—the assumption that self-interested negotiators overtly choose
to check their ethics at the door ([ 1]; [ 4]). Indeed, none of the papers focuses on the
intentional choice to deceive. Each focuses on a factor—moral character, ethical fading,
or environmental cues—that presumably influences ethical or unethical negotiation at
least partially outside of the negotiator's awareness. This too brings the negotiation
literature into closer alignment with the behavioral ethics literature. It also provides an
important corrective to the devious and plotting portrait often painted of the negotiator.
Finally, it highlights how many seemingly benign features of the situation—a negotiation
room's messiness (Gunia), for example—might lead to unexpected unethicality.
Conversely, it highlights how otherwise dubious features of the situation—a negotiator's
complete, consolidated power (Rees et al.), for example—could lead to unexpected
Finally, the three papers on causes (and particularly the two on situational causes) point
toward interventions that could encourage more ethical negotiation in the real world. Rees
and colleagues' paper, for example, suggests that slight differences in the words used to
frame a negotiation can lead to entirely different sets of ethical assumptions. Gunia's
highlights a wide variety of ways that knowing negotiators could alter the physical or
temporal environment in which the negotiation unfolds (e.g., by wearing particular colors).
While these perspectives raise new ethical questions of their own (covered in the future
research section below), suffice it to say here that the papers afford resourceful
negotiators with an array of ideas for stimulating their own and their counterparts' ethical
Overall, the three papers covering the causes of ethical and unethical negotiating suggest
that negotiation should not be confused with an ethical free-for-all. Instead, science offers
substantial guidance about the negotiators among whom—and negotiation situations in
which—ethical and unethical behavior is likely. In this sense, the papers portray
negotiations as much more akin to everyday situations (studied by the behavioral ethics
literature) than commonly assumed. Yet the papers also suggest that negotiations—and
especially their socially interactive features—introduce interesting wrinkles of their own.
As described below, the papers collectively seek to avoid a trade deficit with the
behavioral ethics literature by exporting this idea and others, even as they import decades
of useful findings.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF CONSEQUENCES PAPER: ETHICAL ≠ DESIRABLE AND
UNETHICAL ≠ HARMFUL
Negotiation practitioners and scholars have also assumed, at least implicitly, that
unethical behavior in negotiation is inherently and necessarily bad for the deceived and
probably for the deceiver. For example, , p. 99) concluded an article on the legality
and ethicality of lying in negotiation by saying: "In negotiation, people who rely on the
letter of legal rules as a strategy for plotting unethical conduct are likely to get in deep
trouble. But people who rely on a cultivated sense of right and wrong to guide them in
legal matters are likely to do well." Likewise, authors such as [ 1] and [ 4] clearly
suggested that deceived negotiators tend to suffer serious harm. Finally, scholars have
long argued that deception in negotiation is immoral (e.g., [ 2]; ). And they have often
documented the ubiquitous consequences of unethical negotiation behavior and
especially deception, showing, for example, that deception often harms deceivers by
reducing their perceived trustworthiness (e.g., ), motivating their counterparts to
retaliate (e.g., [ 3]), and hampering their economic outcomes ([ 7]). Likewise, deceived
negotiators often perform worse (; ), even when they detect the deception (and
choose to spend economic resources punishing the deceiver; [ 3]).
Again, these claims are striking, both for the high degree of social consensus and for the
contrast with behavioral ethics research, which increasingly assumes that the
consequences of deception are worthy of scientific study. Although research in this area is
less voluminous than research on antecedents, accumulating evidence focusing
specifically on deception clearly suggests that deception is not necessarily harmful for
either party. Rather, this work indicates that deception is a multidimensional construct, the
unpacking of which reveals its multifaceted and sometimes neutral or even beneficial
effects for all concerned (; , ). In contrast to these papers' implication that the
consequences of unethical behavior merit scientific study, the common assumption that
deception in negotiation is primarily harmful suggests little need to inquire further.
Gaspar and colleagues' symposium paper on the consequences of deception calls this
assumption, too, into question. By highlighting the literature's relatively narrow focus on
"self-interested, informational lies of commission" (p. 62) and unpacking the
multidimensional features of deception in negotiation, Gaspar and colleagues suggest that
deception in negotiation is not necessarily harmful for the deceiver or even the deceived.
Indeed, although it is easy to see how deception could benefit the deceiver in the short
term, this paper highlights several contexts in which deception may benefit the deceived
too—or at least serve the deceiver without substantially harming the deceived. In
particular, the paper suggests that the effects of deception in negotiation depend on three
scientifically predictable dimensions of the deception itself: intentionality (whether the
deception is self-interested or prosocial), content (whether it involves information or
emotions), and activity (whether it takes the form of commission, omission, or paltering).
These dimensions form the basis of a deception consequence model (DCM) that suggests
that deception is not necessarily harmful for either negotiator and can sometimes benefit
both (e.g., in cases of prosocial deception). This also implies the reverse: that, at least in
negotiations, ethical behavior may not always be desirable.
This model and its implications afford a much more comprehensive view of deception's
consequences in negotiation as well as a corrective to the clichéd view that deception is
necessarily and uniformly bad. Indeed, the model problematizes the use of the word
"bad," as it implicates a behavior—deception—that moral philosophers (e.g., ) and
negotiation scholars (e.g., [ 2]) have equated with "unethical." But if the behavior benefits
everyone, can we reasonably call it "bad"? And what about "unethical"? Or does
negotiation offer a setting in which "unethical" behaviors can sometimes be considered
"good"? These are intriguing questions for both philosophers and scholars of
negotiation—topics reminiscent of Rees and colleagues' call for a scholarly consensus
about the meaning and desirability of ethical behavior in negotiation.
More concretely, the DCM helps to pull back the curtain on the reasons why we observe
deception in real-world negotiations. If deception is inherently "bad" for both negotiators,
then a social scientist could reasonably expect to detect little in the real world, or at least
among experienced negotiators. As discussed in the section above, however, scientists
and practitioners make no such assumption: They tend to concur that deception in
negotiation is rampant, with few exceptions for experience. Without the DCM, we have
few tools to explain this conclusion. With the DCM, we know that at least some of the
deception that emerges probably emerges for a scientifically predictable reason: because
it potentially benefits both negotiators, or at least one without harming the other (much like
a logrolling trade-off). Indeed, the model suggests that negotiators who deceive do not
necessarily act irrationally or even self-interestedly; in some circumstances, their
deception may reflect rationality or even benevolence.
Finally, and similarly to the section above, Gaspar and colleagues implicitly highlight many
interventions that could minimize deception's costs in the real world. Negotiators inclined
to deceive, for example, could at least direct their deception toward prosocial lies,
emotional forms of misleading, or omission rather than commission. These implications,
again, raise ethical questions of their own, some of which I discuss below. Nevertheless,
both the practical and the theoretical implications of Gaspar and colleagues' paper come
through clearly: Ethicality is not always desirable, and unethicality not always harmful for
OVERALL THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTIONS
This symposium represents the first known attempt to collect a set of papers that consider
the causes and consequences of ethical and unethical negotiating in tandem. Doing so is
critical for several reasons. First, it provides a bird's-eye view of ethical and unethical
negotiating both before and after it happens, cataloging both what we know and what we
need to know at both stages. Second, a concurrent consideration of causes and
consequences helps us see why and how the causes might matter. Considering the costs
and benefits of deception in negotiation, for example, helps us understand why we should
care about a negotiation room's lighting conditions (Gunia), as well as the positive and
negative consequences of a poorly lit room. Finally, considering both causes and
consequences helps to highlight specific, interesting, and previously unconsidered
research questions. To highlight just one, a reader of these papers might wonder whether
a low- or high-character negotiator (Morse & Cohen) might find it easier to engage in
mutually beneficial forms of prosocial deception (Gaspar et al.).
On a theoretical level, the papers collectively highlight a disconnect between the
behavioral ethics literature and negotiation research. They paint the disconnect as
puzzling, in that the two literatures have much in common. But they also paint it as
surmountable and build numerous theoretical bridges, highlighting specific ways in which
the two literatures could productively engage. Morse and Cohen, for example, provide an
outline for applying psychological work on interindividual–intergroup discontinuity (e.g., [
6]) to negotiations. Overall, the papers import the basic psychological insight that the
person, situation, and interaction between them can explain many aspects of human
behavior (), including deception (). At the same time, they export the negotiation
literature's insight that true, immersive social interactions with real individuals have
fundamentally different qualities than interactions with briefly encountered or imagined
others. Because the behavioral ethics literature has tended to focus on the latter (albeit
not exclusively), it may benefit from the insights in some of these papers (e.g., Morse &
Cohen, Gunia) about the ways in which tru
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