Ethics in Project Management

The idea of ethics has already arisen in my previous articles where I have discussed padding of cost and time estimations, exaggerating pay-offs of project proposals, and so forth.

Ethical dilemmas involve situations where it is difficult to determine whether conduct is right or wrong. Is it acceptable to falsely assure customers that everything is on track when, in reality, you are only doing so to prevent them from panicking and making matters worse?

In a survey of project managers, 81 percent reported that they encounter ethics issues in their work. These dilemmas range from being pressured to alter status reports, backdate signatures, or shade documentation to mask the reality of project progress, to falsifying cost accounts, compromising safety standards to accelerate progress, and approving shoddy work,

Project management is complicated work, and, as such, ethics invariably involve gray areas of judgment and interpretation. For example, it is difficult to distinguish deliberate falsification of estimates from genuine mistakes or the willful exaggeration of project payoffs from genuine optimism. It becomes problematic to determine whether unfulfilled promises were deliberate deception or an appropriate response to changing circumstances.

To provide greater clarity to business ethics, many companies and professional groups publish a code of conduct. Cynics see these documents as simply window dressing, while advocates argue that they are important, albeit limited, first steps.

Ethics in Practice

In practice, personal ethics do not lie in formal statues but at the intersection of one’s work, family, education, profession, religious beliefs, and daily interactions. Most project managers report that they rely on their own private sense of right and wrong—what one project manager called his “internal compass”.

One common rule of thumb for testing whether a response is ethical is to ask, “Imagine that whatever you did was going to be reported on the front page of your local newspaper. How would you like that? Would you be comfortable?”

Unfortunately, scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen have demonstrated the willingness of highly trained professionals to abdicate responsibility for illegal actions and to obey the directives of superiors.

Top management and the culture of an organization play a decisive role in shaping members’ beliefs of what is right and wrong.

Many organizations encourage ethical transgressions by creating a “win at all cost” mentality. The pressures to succeed obscure consideration of whether the ends justify the means. Other organizations place a premium on “fair play” and command a market position by virtue of being trustworthy and reliable.

Final Thoughts

Many project managers claim that ethical behavior is its own reward.

By following your own internal compass your behavior expresses your personal values, others suggest that ethical behavior is doubly rewarding. You not only are able to fall asleep at night but you also develop a sound and admirable reputation.

As we will see in the next article, such a reputation is essential to establishing the trust necessary to exercise influence effectively.

Image courtesy of Freepik.

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