Article / Produced by TOW Project

One of the most common violations of truthtelling in the work world is bluffing or what some call, “mutual deceits.”[1] Bluffing may be legitimate when all the parties understand that the truth is not necessarily expected, and the bluffing is considered part of the negotiation. It’s somewhat akin to a dance that’s expected where both parties know the music and the steps. Routine examples of bluffing that are generally considered legitimate include faking in sports, deception in poker, negotiating prices while shopping in many parts of the non-western world, and not-guilty pleas in trials. The bluff that Philippe Kahn put over on the salesperson from Byte magazine is another example. What makes bluffing seem acceptable is the assumption that everyone knows that bluffing may occur—that is, everyone knows the rules of the game. This is clearly the case in the above examples (though not as clear in the Kahn case), and it is difficult to claim that someone has been unjustifiably deceived in those cases.

Perhaps the classic defense of bluffing in business comes from Albert Carr, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1968. Carr claimed that business is analogous to poker, and since everyone knows the rules of the game, bluffing is not deception and is therefore an acceptable practice. This is a part of what is often referred to as a caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") morality that is quite consistent with Carr’s view of truthtelling. Carr further argued that bluffing is a necessary component of shrewd and effective business practice. Speaking of business people he said,

In their office lives they cease to be private citizens; they become game players who must be guided by a somewhat different set of ethical standards.... Poker’s brand of ethics is different from the ethical ideals of civilized human relationships. The game calls for distrust of the other fellow. It ignores the claim of friendship. Cunning deception by concealment of one’s strength and intentions, not kindness and open-heartedness, are vital in poker. No one thinks any the worse of poker on that account. And no one should think any the worse of the game of business because its standards of right and wrong differ from the prevailing traditions of morality in our society.[2]

Carr argues for a radical dual morality, in which the moral standards of private life cannot be applicable to business and still be competitive. Carr concludes that truthtelling must be abandoned as an ethical value in the workplace and be replaced by the bluffing and deception characterized by poker. In this Carr is at odds with economists such as Milton Friedman, who argued that business activities must conform "to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom."[3]

From a biblical perspective, Carr’s vision of business morality as strictly dichotomized from the morality of private life cannot be considered legitimate business ethics. The Bible does not accept the division of life into separate moral spheres, some of which permit taking advantage of other people through unexpected deception. As suggested earlier in this paper, the poker analogy does not apply to business, since business is clearly not a game: not all participants are at the table by choice (and are not free to leave at their choice) and not everyone is aware of the rules of the game. This last element is especially important since the line between bluffing someone who knows what is happening and taking advantage of someone who does not, is not always clear.

Looking Out for the Other Side in Negotiations

Jack van Hartesvelt is vice president of a real estate development trust fund and former vice president of Westin Hotels. In both positions he has been responsible for negotiating multi-hundred million dollar deals. But he decided he wanted more transparency in the process of negotiations. He tells what happened the first time he tried it:

I have been involved in many contract negotiations. I am not a lawyer, but I am with them all the time, in this constructive confrontation. Here’s the way it typically works. If I want to get a 3 percent fee, I would tell the other side that I absolutely must have 4 percent, recognizing that they are going to have to drag me down to 3 percent to feel like they “won.” The whole negotiation is based on a lie.

This had been wearing on me for a long time and, in 1992, I decided I didn’t want to do negotiations the standard way anymore. Part of this came from a bad experience I had had, where I really took advantage of someone—completely legally. But I didn’t like the result. The second part came from my faith—there was this dissonance between what I believed in that part of my life, and what I did in the rest of my life….

Click here to continue reading this case study.

However, this is not necessarily to suggest that all bluffing is wrong. Nor does it imply that bluffing and negotiation are necessarily the same thing, since in negotiations the goal is a good and honest agreement on a fair price with mutual benefit. However, the reality is that bluffing is frequently a part of negotiations. There are some scenarios where it is clear that everyone does know the rules, such as negotiations for commercial real estate sales, or settlement agreements in lawsuits. In such situations, both parties expect a process of negotiation that progressively moves towards a final agreement. But progressive negotiation should not involve outright lying to the other parties in the process. Rather, it simply means not laying all your cards on the table at the beginning. For example, a lawyer representing his or her client in a settlement conference may have authority to settle the case for $100,000. Truthtelling does not require disclosing so initially, and the lawyer may legitimately make a first offer of $75,000. This gets more complicated if the lawyer is explicitly asked whether this is the highest amount he or she is authorized to offer. Rather than lying and saying “yes,” the lawyer can simply assert this is what is being offered at this time. Negotiations do not have to involve actually deceiving the other parties, even if they know the dance. But neither does truthtelling have to mean full disclosure up front, thereby losing any negotiating leverage.

An important limitation of bluffing in any situation is that material disclosure is required; that is, disclosure of factual information essential to understanding the transaction. For example, if I were selling my car and the transmission was about to fail, it would not be legitimate for me to mislead the buyer into thinking the transmission is in good shape. If I am unwilling or unable to disclose the car’s true condition, then at least I am bound to state that I am selling it “as is.” In fact, in many jurisdictions, sellers can be sued for fraud for failing to make material disclosures (this is particularly true in home sales).

In many negotiating scenarios, participants bluff by making up unverifiable pseudo-facts, such as, “I don’t know if I can get this past my boss,” or “This is my best and final offer,” or “I have x number of others interested in the deal.” Is making up false “facts” within the rules of the game that everyone understands? In some cases, it may be. “This is my final offer,” given at the beginning of a negotiation, would not be taken seriously by an experienced negotiator on the other side. Or if one party says, “I have five other people interested in this deal,” that claim would be discounted by others around the table. Nonetheless, these are questionable practices because making apparently factual statements may be regarded by the other parties as going beyond the rules of bluffing. We may not be able to say categorically that Christians should not engage in this particular kind of bluffing. But we would strongly encourage believers to ask, “Does this process honor God and respect the counterparty?”

At some point, all negotiations need to be anchored in the rules of normal reality, where factual statements are expected to be true. If you try to sell land you don’t own, for example, no one will regard that as a legitimate bluff. The best approach may be to regard bluffing as similar to advertising. Exaggerating (or understating) the parties’ attitudes about the price, terms, or other aspects understood to be a negotiating tactic is not deceitful. But making false statements of fact is deceitful. It is also unlikely to be believed except by the most credulous counterparties, meaning those most likely not to understand the rules of the game that make bluffing legitimate in the first place. Instead of making up false facts, why not make true statements about the counterparty’s lack of knowledge. Instead of saying, “I have three other buyers ready to make an offer, so consider yourself lucky to be offered this price,” how about saying, “For all you know, I could have three other buyers ready to make an offer, so do you really want to press your luck on this price?”

To be clear, having reservations about bluffing does not mean that a company or an individual cannot put its best foot forward. This is why people dress up for interviews and presentations, and why a company’s offices are attractive places to work and visit. But it is important that what represents us in the best light is our actual selves or products, not a fictional person or product. In the scenario with Philippe Kahn and Byte magazine, Kahn deliberately misrepresented his company to the sales person who didn’t know he was being bluffed. This case illustrates the danger of bluffing. Even if it’s conceded that bluffing can be acceptable when it’s clear that everyone knows the rules, the temptation to take advantage of someone who may not be clear on the rules is overwhelming, and often is the reason for the bluff in the first place. As Alexander Hill puts it, “The concept of mutual deceit. . . should be utilized only in carefully prescribed situations. . . where everyone clearly understands the rules and innocent outsiders cannot be negatively affected. Such sanitary procedures are nearly impossible to implement in the marketplace.”[3]

In this light, the case of Philippe Kahn and Borland looks like an illegitimate deception. The fact that the ploy was successful does not make it right, any more than running a red light is okay if you don’t happen to get hit by a car in the intersection. If Borland had gone out of business and stiffed Byte $20,000, it would be clearer that the deception was illegitimate.

In fact, Kahn’s deception was very similar to the kinds of deception perpetrated in the recent global economic meltdown triggered by the collapse of the collateralized mortgage obligation market. Lenders made risky loans to home buyers without demonstrated ability to pay back the loans. Lenders then sold the loans to investors who were misled about the degree of risk involved. If housing prices had happened to continue rising—similar to the way Borland happened to sell a lot of software—then when borrowers defaulted, the lenders could have foreclosed and sold the houses at a high enough price to repay the loan, and the investors might never have known how much risk they had been exposed to. But the fact that the opposite happened—housing prices declined, the loans went bad, and the economy was thrown into a global recession—shows that just because a deception sometimes benefits from good luck, it is not true that everyone benefited and no one got hurt. Deceiving another person or party is a hurt all on its own.

In fact, it is often difficult to tell where bluffing ends and illicit deception begins. Imagine misleading a co-worker into thinking you will endorse her bid for a promotion, then painting her in a bad light in front of the boss so that you can get the promotion yourself. This is clearly a violation of truthtelling, a blatant abuse of the co-worker, and a dishonor to Christ. Yet you can almost convince yourself it is merely a form of bluffing. One of the problems about bluffing is that it opens the door to abuses while maintaining a veneer of legitimacy. We would do well to limit bluffing only to circumstances in which we are certain all parties understand that bluffing is occurring and what the rules and limits are. To repeat Alexander Hill’s warning, most people seldom or never encounter such situations in their work.