The Ethical Project Manager

The Free Dictionary defines ethics as “The branch of philosophy that defines what is good for the individual and for society and establishes the nature of obligations, or duties, that people owe themselves and one another. In modern society, ethics define how individuals, professionals, and corporations choose to interact with one another.”

Do not panic. I am not getting ready to begin an academic treatise on ethics and project management.  For those of you that know me – I am a practical no nonsense, get-it-done business guy.  However, project managers are sometimes confronted with ethical dilemmas in their work and ethical behavior is important to credible project management. Therefore, perhaps you may want to reflect on PM ethics in the few spare minutes you have while sitting in traffic or standing in the shower (Or reading this blog).

So what kinds of business-as-usual PM activities have ethical implications?

  • Handling relationships with potential contractors and stakeholders
  • Taking responsibility, not placing blame
  • Treating employees fairly without regard to race, sex, or religious affiliation
  • Treating contractors/consultants fairly without regard to race, sex, or religious affiliation
  • Appraising performance not appearance or behavior or friendships
  • Respecting proprietary information
  • Hiring and firing (or staffing and un-staffing)

In Management Help’s “10 Myths About Business Ethics”, they note that most of the ethical dilemmas faced by managers in the workplace are highly complex. Doug Wallace of Authenticity Consultants explains that an ethical conflict situation may arise when there are:

  • Value conflicts among differing interests
  • Real alternatives that are equality justifiable
  • Significant consequences on "stakeholders" in the situation

I especially appreciated Matthew Gonzales ethical conflict examples in his post on Project Management because his situations clearly reflect applying ethics to complex PM situations. He cites with the clarity of someone who lived through the events, the ethical challenges of “being pushed to manage through fear” and “receiving competitor information from a potential client”.

The Project Management Institute offers a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct created by practitioners through the PMI’s Ethics Standards Development Committee. The Code covers applicability, responsibility, and specific ethical areas and values. A helpful addition to the Code sections are the comments that clarify PMI’s intentions.  (Did you old timers ever ponder why PMI had to add an Ethics section to the PMBok? J)

Jon Pekel and Doug Wallace provide a helpful “Ten Step Method of Decision Making” guide to work through a formal consideration process that includes an ethical checklist covering tests for:

  • Relevant information
  • Involvement
  • Consequences
  • Fairness
  • Values
  • Universality
  • “Light of Day”

If your practice of project management has included a challenging ethical situation, you can help novice and senior PMs by sharing via your comments.

2 Responses to “The Ethical Project Manager”

  1. PM Hut Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    The topic of ethics in Project Management is very prominent when working in 3rd world countries, where corruption and bribery is the norm. Some even go to the extent that you can’t get any serious project run in such countries without “taking care” of the government officials.

    Doing any project in any third world country will create jobs, feed families, educate children, etc… So is this evil or not?

    I’ve published an article specifically about this issue. You can find it here.

  2. Picking a Project Manager Successor « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] one way or another in most of my posts. Picking just a couple examples, you may want to check out The Ethical Project Manager and The Accidental Project Manager. To answer question 2, I suggest just a couple traits the […]


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