by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | January 30, 2013

Elizabeth ZielinskiBy Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM

Recently I was involved in a contract negotiation where I had reason to believe that one of the parties was taking advantage of certain personal circumstances being experienced by the other party. It caused me to consider, what are the rules for this kind of thing? Is it a savvy business practice, or does it cross the boundaries of professionalism?

I'm being purposely vague on the specifics, because I'm not asking about this particular incident. What I want to discuss is the role of ethics in negotiating a deal.

Keep in mind, ethics and morals are not the same thing. Generally speaking, ethics are the rules of one's profession, but morals are a personal set of principles. For example, a defense attorney may find the action of a client to be morally wrong, but the ethics of the profession compel the client to be defended.

Using that definition, there are tactics many of us may use that may not be moral to some, but are perfectly ethical in a negotiating situation. What do you think, readers -- are the following scenarios ethical?

• A planner offers way less than market value for a meeting package because she knows a facility just experienced a cancellation.

• A hotelier tries to "upsell" a previously booked group, even though the salesperson knows the group is a poorly funded charity.

• A planner leverages a hotel's best offer by claiming another hotel offered a lower rate (whether true or not).

• A third party accepts a commission from a seller that is not disclosed to the buyer.

My guess is that members of our profession wouldn't agree on which of these are unethical, and that is exactly the point of my discussion here. The very fact that we don't agree on such things means that what one party expects from another is not necessarily what they will receive. Ethics are expectations of professionalism, with consequences when those expectations are not met.

And why are ethics important? Haven't we been doing fine as a profession in policing ourselves? Why don't we all just take a "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) approach to our negotiating?

Picture this: You buy oranges at a grocery store. You get home and discover the oranges are rotten inside, and so you take them back to the store to return them. The store refuses to refund your money, saying that you should have inspected the oranges better prior to purchase. The lasting effect is that the consumer spends a disproportionate amount of time inspecting oranges no matter which store it is, and the store loses customers. On a large scale, maybe the price of oranges then goes up and affects all buyers.

In the meetings world, planners don't have the time to validate things that should be considered as fact in an ethical exchange, and suppliers can't afford to lose customers. And the profession can't afford to be seen as opportunistic.

And yet, our industry organizations have been reluctant to establish any ethical standards, and those that have don't enforce them. I find that very surprising, given the push for us to be accepted as influential forces in business. It would seem to me that a code of ethics would be intrinsic to that. We operate in a seductive field with access to money and privileges. In my opinion, it's an oversight not to teach professionally accepted methods of operating.

What are your thoughts, readers? And what do you think is unethical about the scenarios I presented? I'd love to hear more discussion, via the comments below or by email to me at