Why Project Management Ethics Matter

How important are ethics in project management? Explore this topic in detail and discover how it can impact your career.

In project management, having a reputation for doing the right thing is essential for getting your job done effectively. Without trust, communication grinds to a halt. That’s one reason the PMI and other professional business organizations seek to define the values that support ethical work and outline standards of conduct they expect their members to live up to. The term “ethics” covers a lot of territory, but there are some core elements that tend to be included in any discussion of this topic. These include:

Reliability – being trustworthy and honest – acting with integrity

Responsibility – holding oneself and others accountable – striving for excellence

Respectfulness – treating others professionally as one would want to be treated

Fairness – being evenhanded, objective, and consistent in interactions with others

Credentialed project management professionals generally adhere to an ethical code of conduct to maintain their credibility within their field. However, it is also important to acknowledge that there is a great deal of pressure placed on PMs to disregard ethics. When faced with unrealistic deadlines, an inadequate budget, excessive restrictions, or other hindrances to project completion, it can become tempting to stretch the boundaries of ethical behavior.

Here’s an Example:

Sometimes disclosing a particular piece of information would bring down a hailstorm of trouble from stakeholders. It might be possible to avoid all that unpleasantness by leaving a critical bit of data out of a report – at least until you have time to try to fix the problem. Some people would say that’s not really lying, just controlling the flow of information. But if you’ve made a commitment to communicate fully and honestly with your stakeholders (a key component of the PMI code of conduct), it is a serious breach of ethics to withhold pertinent information.

There are Plenty of Opportunities to Get Things Wrong

There are dozens of other ways to cut corners during project management that can make your job seem easier. This includes letting things slide in QA assuming you can go back and fix things later. Or, it might be the temptation to play fast and loose with documentation or regulations due to time constraints. Perhaps you have access to confidential information that could be used to “grease the wheels” with a contractor but that you know you shouldn’t disclose. Conflicts of interest are always a temptation when you are in the position to give and receive favors in the context of a project.

How Important is Your Career?

Then, there may be the threat hanging over your head that if you don’t get the job done your employer or client will find someone else who is willing to do whatever it takes. In fact, from one standpoint, being known as someone who bends the rules to get things done can be a distinct advantage in project management – in the short term. Stakeholders may be happy to look the other way as long as they enjoy a profit as a result of a “successfully” completed project.

However, unethical behavior has a habit of coming to light. It may not rise to the level of criminal misconduct, but it can tank a career regardless. Even in a culture that places a great deal of trust in contracts and in the power of the legal system to enforce them, no one really wants to have to worry about whether they will end up in court when they engage with your organization. When vendors, partners, lenders, customers, employees, and other stakeholders can’t trust the word of a project manager, business relationships break down.

PMs Can’t Afford to Ignore Ethics

Ultimately, a project manager who can’t be trusted will eventually be viewed as a liability by the same people who pushed for the PM to break the rules in the first place. An unethical PM is one who faces a bleak future with not even the comfort of having their self respect intact. In the final analysis, the personal and professional price that is paid for ditching ethics just isn’t worth it.

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