Do the Right Thing

By Gale, Sarah Fister | PM Network, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Do the Right Thing

Gale, Sarah Fister, PM Network


WHEN CONFRONTED WITH a sticky ethical situation, most project managers know what they should do. But with deadlines looming and budget pressures increasing, it can be tempting to bend the rules. And while massive affairs such as the Enron accounting scandal get most of the ink, it's usually not the grandiose ethical questions involving significant safety or corruption issues that cause most project professionals to stumble. Bather, it's the hundreds of subtle ethical dilemmas project managers face every day that eventuaUy trip them up.

Every seemingly minor moral concession made to please senior executives in the short term impacts the long-term success of the project and its leader. When making the ethical decision means going over budget or stretching out the schedule, project managers face a tough call-and tiiey often rely on the company's organizational culture to decide in which direction to go.

Last January, PMI unveded a revised Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. There is no ambiguity. It clearly states: "As practitioners of project management we are committed to doing what is right and honorable."

But the project management code of ethics isn't talked about as much as it is in other professions, and that impacts its strength, says Alex Brown, PMP, president of Real-Life Projects Inc., a consultancy in BeUe Mead, New Jersey, USA. "Doctors, lawyers and other professions have a strong code of ethics, well-known to their clients, and generally those who break the ethical code are expected to be censured or have their license removed," he says. "I do not think project management has risen to that level of ethical behavior yet. Many project managers have a strong sense of personal ethics, but the legal and organizational structure to support a code of ethics for project management is still very weak."

Mr. Brown worries that in the absence of a wellknown and adhered-to code, project managers are forced to define their ethical path.

Not everyone agrees. A code helps spell things out but project managers should know how to conduct themselves-with no excuses, says Jerry Bad, consulting project manager for Entity Group Ltd., a business management consultancy in WeUington, New Zealand.

Most people know what the right decision is, and they shouldn't require a separate set of rules for the team or project. "Ethics are ethics. I don't see project management ethics as being something apart," he says. "A defined code of conduct simply makes certain aspects of ethical behavior explicit."

First, Do No Harm

Organizational culture can be a powerful force for good-or evil. If upper management supports or encourages unethical choices, that trickles down through projects and impacts every project manager's ability to make good decisions, Mr. Brown says. "When you lose sight of ethics, it grows into the culture little by little until you become an Enron," he says.

Although not all ethical missteps result in highprofile corporate scandals, it can be a slippery slope. "The project manager is meant to be a person of trust" Mr. Brown says. "As soon as you start playing games to make someone happy, you cross a line, and you can lose that trust."

Even if project managers have good intentions, smaU unethical decisions that offer quick-fix solutions can have catastrophic long-term effects on the project the company and the individual, says LeBoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, executive vice president of ESI, a consultancy in Washington, D.C., USA.

Even if everyone agrees to something seemingly minor, such as backdating contracts, it usually backfires.

"From a project management point of view, you only have one opportunity to give up your integrity, and then it's really hard to get back," he says.

The challenge for project managers, Mr. Ward says, is that they want to please everyone-and that can get them into difficult situations. …

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