Fair Play in Procurement: Ensuring Equity in Contract Terms – Part 1

Welcome to Part 1 of our two-part series on fair contracts. In this part, we delve into the core principles defining fairness in procurement, the significant role of procurement professionals in fostering a fair negotiation environment to drive for fair contracts and practical insights into identifying and negotiating unfair contract terms. We aim to provide strategic procurement professionals with a comprehensive understanding of fair contract terms’ ethical and business imperatives and effective negotiation strategies that benefit buyers and suppliers.


At its heart, procurement is not just about securing goods and services at the best price but also about establishing equitable, sustainable relationships with suppliers. The fairness of contract terms significantly impacts these relationships. To ensure fair dealings, Comprara’s consulting services provide strategic insights into contract negotiations and management, helping organisations craft equitable relationships that protect both parties’ interests.

The impacts of such unfairness are far-reaching. Suppliers might grapple with reduced profitability as they are cornered into accepting lower margins or bearing higher costs. There’s also increased risk exposure, as they might find themselves bound to terms that leave them vulnerable legally and financially. Beyond the tangible, there’s a loss of control over crucial business aspects, such as pricing and production, which can be debilitating for any supplier. Moreover, the inability to fulfil these unfair terms can tarnish their reputation, affecting future business opportunities.

The role of procurement professionals in fostering a fair negotiation environment.

As strategic procurement professionals, cultivating an environment of fairness in contract negotiations is paramount. This role transcends the boundaries of securing the organisation’s best deal. It encompasses the ethical dimension of ensuring that contracts are legally sound and morally equitable. The focus should be on creating mutually beneficial agreements, thereby fostering long-term, sustainable supplier relationships.

Fostering fairness involves a proactive approach – from thoroughly reviewing contract terms for potential biases to engaging in transparent, good-faith negotiations with suppliers. It also means being prepared to challenge and, if necessary, walk away from inherently unjust terms. Procurement professionals adhere to ethical business practices by prioritising fairness and contributing to a more balanced and sustainable business ecosystem. This approach benefits the suppliers and enhances the buying organisation’s reputation and operational stability. Ultimately, fairness in procurement is not just a legal requirement but a strategic imperative that underpins successful and resilient business relationships.

Comprara’s capability services offers negotiation training that empowers Procurement Professionals to negotiate more effectively, helping to level the playing field in contract discussions.

The Spirit of Fairness in Procurement

Defining “fairness” in procurement: balance, mutual benefit, and respect for all parties.

“Fairness” is an ethos that guides every transaction and negotiation. It is the art of crafting balanced deals, ensuring that all parties involved – large corporations or small suppliers – benefit mutually from the agreement. This balance fosters respect, trust, and cooperation, which is essential for long-term business success. Fairness in procurement extends beyond equitable pricing; it encompasses terms and conditions that respect the capabilities and limitations of all parties.

Procurement professionals create a foundation for sustainable and productive relationships with suppliers by prioritising fairness. This approach acknowledges that suppliers are not just vendors but partners whose growth and stability are integral to the buying organisation’s success. Fairness means creating contracts that are transparent, reasonable, and considerate of the risks and challenges faced by suppliers. It’s about negotiating terms that allow flexibility and understanding, especially in scenarios beyond a supplier’s control.

The moral and business case for fair contract terms.

The moral imperative for fair contract terms stems from a commitment to ethical business practices. It recognises the inherent value of treating suppliers with dignity and respect, understanding that exploitative or one-sided contracts can harm their business health and, by extension, the broader industry and community.

From a business perspective, fair contract terms are more than just an ethical choice; they are strategic. Fair terms lead to more robust, more reliable supply chains. Suppliers treated fairly are more likely to be committed, responsive, and flexible, invaluable in a dynamic business environment. They are also more inclined to invest in quality improvements and innovations that benefit the buying organisation.

Moreover, fair procurement practices enhance an organisation’s reputation, making it a partner of choice in the market. This reputation attracts high-quality suppliers and resonates with customers and stakeholders who are increasingly conscious of ethical business practices. By embedding fairness into procurement strategies, organisations uphold their moral obligations and lay the groundwork for long-term, sustainable success.

Fair play, is the Australian way

In Australia, the concept of “Fair Play” is deeply ingrained in both the cultural ethos and professional practices. This principle, which underscores the importance of equity, honesty, and integrity, resonates strongly across various aspects of Australian life, from sports to business dealings. In the professional realm, particularly in procurement and contractual agreements, “Fair Play” is more than just a guideline; it’s a benchmark for conducting business. This commitment to fairness ensures that all parties, regardless of their size or power, are treated with respect and dignity. The spirit of “Fair Play” fosters a culture of mutual trust and respect, encouraging collaborations and partnerships that are both sustainable and beneficial.  

Identifying Unfair Contract Terms

Common examples of unfair terms encountered by suppliers in procurement.

Unfair contract terms in procurement often manifest in various forms, posing significant supplier challenges. One typical example is clauses allowing buyers to unilaterally modify contract terms, such as delivery schedules, without the supplier’s consent. This lack of mutuality can leave suppliers vulnerable to sudden and unfavourable changes. Another example is terms that give buyers the right to terminate contracts arbitrarily or with minimal notice, placing suppliers in a precarious position where they cannot reliably plan for the future.

Additionally, terms that impose disproportionate supplier liabilities for minor or unintentional breaches can be oppressive. These may include penalties that far exceed the actual harm or loss caused by the breach. Clauses that limit or entirely remove the supplier’s right to seek legal redress in disputes can also be unfairly one-sided, denying them the opportunity for fair adjudication. Lastly, terms requiring suppliers to disclose confidential or proprietary information without adequate safeguards can jeopardize their competitive position and business interests.

The consequences of such terms for suppliers, including profitability, risk, and reputation.

The impact of these unfair terms on suppliers can be profound. Financially, they may lead to reduced profitability as suppliers are forced to absorb unexpected costs or accept lower payment terms. In terms of risk, these unfair terms often expose suppliers to more significant legal and financial vulnerabilities, particularly when they have limited capacity to absorb these risks. This can lead to a cautious business approach, stifling innovation and growth.

Moreover, unfair terms can significantly damage a supplier’s reputation. Failure to meet obligations due to oppressive contract terms can label a supplier as unreliable or untrustworthy. This reputational damage can be particularly harmful in industries where credibility and trust are paramount for securing future contracts.

The Supplier’s Disadvantage

The challenges suppliers face due to lack of bargaining power.

Suppliers, especially smaller ones, often face significant disadvantages in contract negotiations due to a lack of bargaining power. This disparity arises from various factors, including market competition, financial constraints, and the urgent need for contract acquisition to sustain their business. Large buyers, aware of this imbalance, may impose terms that are heavily skewed in their favour, leaving suppliers with little room to negotiate more equitable conditions. The fear of losing a potentially lucrative contract can compel suppliers to accept terms not in their best interests.

Real-life scenarios where pressure to win contracts can lead to acceptance of unfair terms.

In real-life scenarios, this dynamic plays out in several ways. For instance, a small supplier might feel compelled to agree to a contract with an excessively long payment term because they cannot risk losing business from a major client. This situation can strain their cash flow and operational capabilities. In another scenario, a supplier might agree to take on excessive liability for product defects or delivery delays, despite these being beyond their reasonable control, simply because they cannot afford to push back against a powerful buyer.

These scenarios highlight the need for a more balanced approach in procurement, where fair terms are not just a legal formality but a fundamental aspect of business ethics and sustainability. For procurement professionals, understanding and addressing suppliers’ challenges is critical to fostering a more equitable and robust supply chain.

Mitigating Unfairness: A Role for Procurement Managers

Strategies for procurement managers to identify and mitigate unfair terms.

Procurement managers are pivotal in mitigating unfairness in contract terms, and their strategies must be proactive and discerning.

The first step is education: staying informed about what constitutes an unfair term. This includes understanding the market standards, regulatory frameworks, and ethical practices. Procurement managers should develop a keen eye for spotting overly burdensome or one-sided clauses. For example, terms that allow for unilateral modifications or impose disproportionate penalties should raise immediate red flags.

Once identified, the challenge is negotiating these terms towards a more balanced middle ground. This involves clear communication with suppliers, expressing concerns about specific terms and explaining the rationale behind seeking amendments. It’s crucial to approach these negotiations to create a win-win situation. For instance, a term can be modified instead of outright removal to include provisions that protect both parties’ interests.

Comprara’s consulting expertise supports these Procurement Leaders in developing strategies to identify and address contract management opportunities.

The importance of due diligence and legal advice in reviewing contracts.

In addition to negotiation skills, thorough due diligence is necessary for procurement managers. This involves meticulously reviewing every aspect of the contract, and paying close attention to terms that may have hidden implications or could become problematic. It’s not just about what is written in the contract but also what might be missing. For instance, clauses that outline dispute resolution processes or clearly define the scope of work can prevent misunderstandings and conflicts later on.

Legal advice is invaluable in this process. While procurement managers are experts in their field, legal professionals can provide insights into the implications of specific terms from a legal standpoint. They can help interpret complex language and ensure the contract complies with current laws and regulations. Legal counsel can also guide how to rewrite or negotiate terms to make them fairer while protecting the organisation’s interests.

In sum, procurement managers must employ market knowledge, negotiation skills, due diligence, and legal insights to mitigate unfair contract terms effectively. This comprehensive approach ensures fair dealings and safeguards the organisation and its suppliers against potential legal and financial risks.

This concludes Part 1 of our exploration into fairness in procurement. Read on – in Part 2, we discuss actionable steps for procurement teams, delve into the regulatory backdrop of contract fairness, and provide a conclusion that encapsulates the essence of equitable procurement practices. In Part 2, we will offer a checklist for ensuring fair contracts, insights into the legal framework governing unfair contract terms, and practical advice for embedding fairness into everyday procurement activities.