Negotiating Without Reciprocity

Larry Price
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Wednesday - August 27, 2008
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It hasn’t been a good year for negotiations.

The University of Hawaii-Manoa started the downhill slide with its handling of the dismissal of its former president Evan Dobelle. After many rumors and a trial by media, Dobelle was fired, then released after negotiations with his attorney. He left the university with a clean slate and a generous severance package.

UH-Manoa didn’t learn anything from that negotiation debacle and applied the same strategy in handling its former athletic director, Herman Frazier. After his failure to produce a simple contract with former head football coach June Jones, Frazier also was released with a clean slate and a generous severance package.

In Jones’ case, he left by breaking a contract that called for him to repay a huge sum of money to the university if he left for another school. After all the legal wrangling, it was determined that he had been given permission by Frazier to disregard the written contract, and he accepted another job with no penalty. After lengthy mediation, there is still no clear-cut declaration on the final status of the ordeal.

Let’s not forget the athletic department’s attempt to play the role of benevolent travel agent for a big group of Sugar Bowl friends and family, who in the end had to repay UH or have their names printed in the newspapers. It was if someone didn’t know that when you provide services for anyone or anything with taxpayers’ money, it has to be accounted for publicly. Many on the list were surprised at the announcement and acted like the action was unwarranted.

Dobelle, Frazier and Jones each left with clean slates, received generous severance package and moved on to better jobs. The other similarity in these negotiations is it appears that none of these interested parties was communicating with the others.

Another negotiation that went terribly wrong was the contract with teachers that was contingent on a random drug-testing program. After months of negotiations, an acceptable agreement with liberal pay raises was reached and ratified by both sides. After months of receiving their pay increases and with the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association suggested that the random drug-testing portion of the ratified contract was unconstitutional. It will be up to a court of law to decide which side is wrong, who will pay and what the remedy will be for the injured party. It’s interesting to note that the HSTA believes it is still in negotiations with the Department of Education over how to conduct the drug testing.

To prove nobody is immune to the problems of reciprocal communications, the Stop Rail Now group couldn’t convince the city administration to get a ballot initiative on the November ballot. The argument reached the courts, and while they won in a strongly worded ruling handed down by Judge Sakamoto, after warning everyone that “suffocating the public right to choose is not an acceptable maneuver,” the ink was not dry on his ruling when negotiations on how many signatures were needed to get the proposition on the ballot.

Of course, taxpayers can’t assume that communications in negotiations will be all good news. All too often, as in all of these examples of negotiations, bluffing, threats, trickery, exaggeration, concealment, half-truths and outright lies have surfaced. More often than not, it is clear that unscrupulous parties, in some cases, have attempted to exploit strategically sensitive information to boost their own payoff. Unfortunately, many people now believe these activities are part and parcel of government negotiations.

It’s not supposed to be like that. When done properly, the mutual exchange of internal documents, informal briefings, clear statements of interest, joint brainstorming and joint problem-solving are all part of ethical negotiations and should be commonplace.

It might be a good idea for our government leaders to consider taking a new approach to negotiating with each other. Rather than the jockeying-for-position approach, it the implementation of a full, open, truthful exchange of information would be refreshing. It would foster a common knowledge of how negotiations should unfold. It seems, at times, that neither party is talking or listening to the other, and in the end, no one knows what transpired and the public is left wondering what happened.

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