An Introduction to Ethics and Project Management

An Introduction to Ethics and Project Management

 Michael R. Wood Michael R. Wood is a Business Process Improvement & IT Strategist Independent Consultant. He is creator of the business process-improvement methodology called HELIX and founder of The Natural Intelligence Group, a strategy, process improvement and technology consulting company. He is also a CPA, has served as an Adjunct Professor in Pepperdine’s Management MBA program, an Associate Professor at California Lutheran University, and on the boards of numerous professional organizations. Mr. Wood is a sought after presenter of HELIX workshops and seminars in both the U.S. and Europe.

Every major profession–accounting, law, medicine and yes, project management–subscribes to a set of ethics and supporting code of conduct. Ethics is a broad and extensive concept. Universities like Warton and Harvard even offer masters and doctoral programs in ethics. There is much similarity in each profession’s definition of ethics and professional conduct, and yet they are not identical. This raises the question as to whether ethics is an absolute concept or is relative to the culture, organization, profession, environment, times and more.

In addition, there are different philosophies related to ethics ranging from the pragmatic to the situational interpretations. Clearly, within a profession, compliance to each’s code of conduct is critical to maintaining your professional standing in that space. This applies to those credentialed in project management; short of a formal complaint or review by the credentialing organization happening, there is much grey area that needs to be explored as to what constitutes ethical behavior within the day-to-day oversight and management of a project.

For me, ethical professionals–beyond being honest, responsible, respectful and fair–share some common traits when it comes to acting on and resolving ethical issues (definitions adapted from Merriam Webster’s dictionary):

  • Clarity and discernment: The ability to grasp and understand situations clearly, accurately and objectively.
  • Superior judgment: The act or process of forming an opinion or making a decision after careful thought based on accurately discerning the facts, issues and impact of the decision made on the future.
  • Integrity: Being honest and fair.
  • Intestinal fortitude: The inner strength of mind and will that enable you to act in the face of adversity.
  • Courage to do what is right: The ability to do something that you know is correct and appropriate regardless of the risk to yourself.

To be sure, the sum of these traits sets leaders apart from those who are merely in charge. However, they only can be observed through a person’s actions and behaviors, not merely their declarations. This brings us to the concept of ethical behavior and decision making. At, ethical behavior is defined as follows: “Acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values.”

Most situations we encounter each day have easy answers related to doing the ethical and right thing. But sometimes in projects–as in life–we find ourselves in a situation that is complex, intimidating and troubling; where we are not sure of what the right decision and action should be. This is often called “being on the horns of a dilemma.” It doesn’t matter if we are in charge or merely aware of the issues in play. What does matter is that we believe that our actions can make a difference to the outcome.

For a person of high ethical integrity, these situations haunt them until closure is reached. These situations often are fraught with tradeoffs, risks and consequences that can have dire impacts on self, others and organizations. Questions like…

  • Should I say something?
  • Is it really any of my business?
  • If I do nothing, am I too at fault?
  • What if I am wrong?

…can flood our minds and emotions. Beyond that, we might even find ourselves trying to rationalize the situation in order to justify that it’s okay. The Ethics Scoreboard Rule Book provides a list of typical rationalizations as follows on its page entitled “Ethics Fallacies, Myths, Distortions and Rationalizations” (see the link for a more complete explanation of each):

  • The Golden Rationalization: “Everybody does it.”
  • The Gore Misdirection: “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
  • The Compliance Dodge: hiding behind rules or regulations
  • The Biblical Rationalizations: “Judge not, lest ye not be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” Or “Who am I to judge?”
  • The “Tit for Tat” Excuse: Responding to unethical behavior with more unethical behavior; getting even (“They had it coming.”)
  • The Trivial Trap (also known as “The Slippery Slope”): “No harm, no foul.” The cause is just.
  • The King’s Pass: The person involved is too important.
  • The Dissonance Drag: Dealing with the unethical or wrong actions of someone you respect; looking the other way.
  • The Saint’s License: “It’s for a good cause”
  • The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
  • The Consistency Obsession: It is the dogma to be followed.
  • Ethical Vigilantism: “The company owes me. I am entitled.”
  • Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”
  • The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
  • Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

And of course, although not listed above, this is one of my favorites: “It wouldn’t be politically correct to say or do something.”

When you find yourself invoking these types of rationalizations, it is a sign that you perhaps need to step back and challenge your own premises, fears and motivations.

For those in positions of authority and power–like being a project manager–the actions taken can have far-ranging implications. Luckily, when project managers find ourselves on the horns of an ethical dilemma–where their soul searching still leaves them in doubt–there are resources that can help them work through the complexities and hopefully help them come to a prudent and ethical decision.

PMI provides one of these resources via its paper entitled “Ethical Decision-Making Framework.” The publication presents a process you might find useful in reaching an appropriate course of action as follows (taken directly from the publication):

  1. Assessment: Make sure you have all the facts about the ethical dilemma and ask these questions:
  • Does it abide by the law?
  • Does it align with the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct?
  • Does it agree with your employer’s and client’s code of ethics and conduct?
  • Does it align with your ethical values and those of the surrounding culture?

If it does not abide by the law, seek legal counsel. If the answers to the above questions provide substantial facts to make a case, go to the next step. If you are not sure, you may need to gather more facts or ask a trusted person for advice.

  1. Alternatives: Consider your choices by asking the following questions:
  • Have you listed possible alternative choices?
  • Have you considered pros and cons for each possible choice?

If the answers to the above questions result in a viable solution, go to the next step to analyze your candidate decision. If not, you may need to gather more facts and complete your research.

  1. Analysis: Identify your candidate decision and test its validity with these questions:
  • Will your candidate decision have a positive impact or prevent harm to project managers, PMI staff or volunteers, clients, your employer’s organization, other stakeholders, the environment, or future generations?
  • Does your candidate decision take cultural differences into account?
  • Looking back, will this decision seem like a good idea a year from now?
  • Are you free from external influence to make this decision?
  • Are you in a calm and unstressed state of mind?

If the possible impacts are acceptable, proceed to check your decision against ethical principles in the next step. If not, consider taking time to test another candidate decision, review your options and/or your case.

  1. Application: Apply ethical principles to your candidate decision by asking these questions:
  • Would your choice result in the greatest good?
  • Would your choice treat others as you would like to be treated?
  • Would your choice be fair and beneficial to all concerned?

If these or other traditional philosophical questions evoke doubts or seem to create a new dilemma, you might need to reconsider your decision, review the facts, the options and the implications.

If the answer is “yes” and your candidate decision seems consistent with other ethical principles, move to the next step to decide and take action.

  1. Action: Make a decision after considering these questions:
  • Are you willing to accept responsibility for your decision?
  • Could you make your decision public and feel good about it?
  • Are you ready to act?

If you are comfortable with your decision, take action. If not, retrace these steps to discover a better solution.

Having practiced as a CPA and having worked as a project manager for over 40 years, I have come to believe that those of us who serve in a professional capacity, who garner the public or organizational trust need to take ethics and ethical behavior seriously. For me, it is a question of character that shapes who I am.

What are your thoughts on the role ethics should play in our personal and professional lives? What issues and hard choices have you faced when caught in the throes of an ethical dilemma? Your thoughts and insights matter.

Helpful Links

Topic URL
  1. PMI Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct
  1. Project Management Ethics and Rules of Conduct – by Bruce McGraw
  1. Critical Review of the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
  1. AICPA Code of Professional Conduct
  1. Principles of Professional Conduct
  1. Example of Organizational Ethics by Rick Suttle, Demand Media Google
  1.  8 Elements of an Ethical Organization by Jana Matthews, Founder and CEO, Boulder Quantum Ventures
  1. When ethics collide: The boss vs. the profession by Paul Rhynard
  1. Ethical Dilemma
  1. Situation ethics
  1. Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions
  1. Ethics Fallacies, Myths, Distortions and Rationalizations
  1. The Ethical Challenges in Managing Projects – by Ralph L. Kliem, PMP
  1. Ethical Behavior Definition
  1. Ethical Dilemma
  1. Ethical Issues in Project Management – by: AlexisW

Culled from: