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Topic 10.11: The ethical project manager

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In today’s business climate, acting and behaving ethically is more important than ever.

Project professionals face unique challenges as they navigate political and social dynamics both inside and outside their organisations.

Sources of ethical conflict may include:

Interpersonal project team conflicts

Challenges with project sponsors

Vendor negotiations

Cultural differences, and

Government regulations.

Deciding what is ethical can be challenging, and the answers may differ depending on your organisation and culture.

Ponzi scheme: fraudulent investment

When it comes to ethics, people tend to think about situations where large-scale incidents take place, such as mortgage fraud cases, security exchange violations and Ponzi schemers like Bernie Madoff.

The media tends to focus on these types of ethical situations, and when people think about someone being unethical, the latest headlines are what come to mind.

Yet while ethical values can have many definitions, the influence of these values on behaviour is consistent.

In other words, even minor ethical breaches can influence how people perceive you, your project and your employer.

Some unethical practices that a project manager might be tempted to engage in include:

Padding estimates

Secretly sacrificing agreed quality standards to cut costs

Going along with a customer’s request when you know it’s not best for the project

Not standing up for what you believe is the right decision

Going along with groupthink to avoid making waves

Contracting to a seller that is not the most qualified because you have an ulterior motive

Looking the other way and not speaking up when you see wrongdoing because a higher-up is the one behaving unethically, and you think you need to go along to keep your job

Asking staff to do extra free work

Showing favouritism towards certain team members based on personal friendships or other non-merit-based reasons

Lying by omission and dealing in bad faith

Submitting false project status and progress reports, or

Overcharging project work hours.

Yet not every ethical scenario is foreseeable; so how can you instil ethical behaviour in your project teams?

Set and maintain ethical goals across your organisation

Demonstrate top management commitment to integrity

Monitor and audit conduct (formal and informal)

Tie performance rewards system to ethical conduct

Distribute and reinforce written rules, policies, and procedures

Train employees to recognise and make ethical decisions

Lead by example, modelling and being accountable for your own ethical behaviour

Maintain ‘whistle-blower’ channels and policies

Reward acts of integrity and ethical decisions, and

Immediately respond to misconduct, following procedures consistently and fairly.

Mindful ethical project leadership skills

As you can see, ethical project leadership depends on a lot more than just drawing up an organisational chart and writing a neat project plan.

Leadership itself is a nuanced activity with a fluid set of requirements that constantly evolve as the project does.

It is not something that can be ‘taught’ in the way that the earned value formulas can; ethical leadership practices must be learned on the job through observation and application.

To that end, it is hoped that the principles discussed in this module can inform your behaviour as a project manager and leader, enabling you to get the best out of both your project and your team.

The Institute of Project Management has developed a Code of Ethics for Project Professionals that can guide you through the ethical challenges of your chosen career.

I encourage you to read and subscribe to that code, and adopt it in your workplace.