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Volume VI, Number 2 • February 2013 • Archive of Past Issues
An E-Publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association
Written by Linda B. Bulmash

This Month's Topic:
Defining Fairness In A Negotiation

Have you ever been stymied by your counter part screaming that the deal isn't fair when you thought it was eminently fair? Have you faced your own confusion about what would be fair under the circumstances?

We all make decisions about fairness based on a preconceived set of standards. Those "standards" have inherent biases that impact the way we assess what is fair. Researchers have identified three ways people frequently define fairness: equality (usually a 50-50 split), equity (splitting proportionally based on input), and need (splitting based on who needs it more).

However, Psychologist David Messick concluded that people choose among these fairness options based on their self-serving desire for more: our greed determines how we define fairness in any given situation. For instance, in splitting up a partnership, both partners will end up feeling insulted and wronged.

Max Brazerman, professor at Harvard Business School, has found that professional arbitrators and many businesses rely on a fourth fairness norm: maintaining the status quo. For instance, organizations prefer to maintain the status quo and resist major changes. So when the organization calculates raises, it bases it on a percentage of your salary last year, even if that salary was unfair. And that inequity then becomes institutionalized.

In any negotiation, you should strive to bring fairness considerations to the surface, so that everyone will understand how each person defines "fairness" and one another's needs and wants. Otherwise, you and the other side will be negotiating toward conflicting "fairness" modes which will lead to a stalemate and hard feelings. *

*Adapted from "Being Fair and Getting What You Want," Harvard Program on Negotiation Newsletter, 3/14/11.

LACBA member Linda B. Bulmash, Esq., writes the Negotiation Tips. You can contact her at:
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