Project Management Ethics and Rules of Conduct

I have had an interesting couple of weeks of watching people in business with poor or no ethics and values.  It is always interesting that people like that tell you that you are the one with problems and you aren’t looking at the situation like they are.  Ethics can become complicated when you look at classical ethics dilemmas such as “Sophie’s Choice” or consider classroom discussions of extreme and artificial conditions requiring an ethics-based decision. Ethical questions with less at stake than deciding which child should die in a concentration camp arise with some frequency in the life of a project manager. In a previous post, “The Ethical Project Manager,” I offered some thoughts on areas of a project manager’s job that involved the applications of ethics.

Is there a problem?
In 2002, TechRepublic conducted a Home Quick Poll of 825 readers about ethical challenges in their work life. Based on self-reports, 57% said they had been asked to do something unethical by a supervisor. Earlier the same year, their IT Consultant Quick Poll found that 19 percent of consultants had been asked “many times” to do something illegal or unethical.

Like what? Examples of ethical issues mentioned included using unlicensed software – actually against the law and not really a matter of ethics – and installing software to monitor employee activity such as email without their knowledge. Another example involved alternating a presentation to a naïve senior manager that limited the presentation of project risks in order to gain funding.

Janet Williams presented an interesting, and believable, scenario that required a senior IT manager to think about ethics and business practices. Here’s the story in a nutshell:

A Canadian company vice-president of operations is asked to send a team to complete a software and electrical installation for a long-term client in the United States. Because the U.S. company has recently setup a mandatory drug-testing program, they demand that the Canadian workers submit a urine sample before beginning work. In Canada, drug testing is optional for employees and these Canadian workers refused citing ethical concerns about what data was collected, the embarrassment and possible other uses of the testing results. No work was done and the team returned home. Now the vice-president must decide if the project manager should be fired for failure to do his job.

Ms. Williams concludes the story by reporting that the Canadian company instituted a series of policy changes and training to help project managers in responding to these types of situation.  They also composed a different team that was willing to comply with the U.S. company’s drug testing requirements. She suggests that companies complete due diligence before contracting with companies in other countries to prepare their employees better. The fate of the project manager was unstated.

Another option, and one we practice at Cognitive Technologies, prepares employees to deal with ethical challenges by applying the organization’s Code of Conduct. We teach, we share and we model behaviors that comply with these general guidelines:

  1. Reliability—We demonstrate reliability by honoring our contracts and commitments.
  2. Transparency—We demonstrate transparency through communications that evidence truthfulness, disclosure, and candor, from what we say about ourselves on the web and print materials, to what we tell clients and potential clients.  We apply the same communications transparency when engaged with the client on a contract.
  3. Fiduciary—We build our client’s confidence in our ability to manage costs and property through our active control of accounting and time keeping, our use and protection of client’s property, and other record keeping and reviews to identify and eliminate any questionable activities.
  4. Continuous Improvement—We listen and are open to new ideas and better ways to do things, consistently examining our methodologies and processes, and eliciting feedback to “find a better way.” We know that people are not perfect – so we seek processes to give us feedback and help us improve.
  5. Dignity and Fairness: We treat others, regardless of position or title, with professional respect and courtesy, and employ fair compensation and treatment policies.  Every person has value and can contribute; we acknowledge those values and contributions.

Guidance from the Project Management Institute
The PMI Board of Directors approved this Code of Ethics and Professional Development  in October 2006 which said:

  • Be responsible — take ownership of decisions including their consequences. This includes knowing and meeting all legal requirements, reporting unethical or illegal conduct to appropriate management, fulfilling commitments and protecting proprietary and confidential information.
  • Be respectful of yourself, listen to others and protect resources entrusted to us.
  • Be fair and transparent in decisions including disclosing conflicts of interest to appropriate stakeholders.
  • Be honest in communications and conduct.

Have you wondered “why” the PMI felt the need to add a Code of Ethics as part of Professional Project Manager the requirements? You only have to look around you to see that not everyone behaves in an ethical manner nor have the same values and principles that you and your organization may hold. Being from Texas, I like the way that they say it here, “My word is my bond.”

If you have had recent experiences with ethical issues or seen model conduct from peers or supervisors, please share.


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.

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