The Importance of Ethics in Project Management

Introduction: The Ethical Imperative for Project Managers

While Ethics are important for all organizations and their employees and other stakeholders, they are more important for project managers who execute complex projects and interact with a wide variety of stakeholders. Indeed, being ethical and following ethical norms can be said to be prerequisites for project managers who have to practice ethics and observe ethical rules.

The importance of ethics for project management can be seen from the way in which project managers have to bid for projects after full disclosure of their capabilities and capacities without resorting to hyperbole or exaggeration and during the bidding process, ensure that they do not employ underhand means to bag the project. As the rest of the discussion indicates, there are some red flags that project managers need to be aware of in all phases.

Bidding and Prospecting

Indeed, bidding and prospecting for projects are the primary sources of unethical behaviour and unacceptable conduct. Take the example of global construction and infrastructure firms bidding for the recently concluded Brazil Olympics. There were several allegations of firms and their project managers employing unethical means to bag the projects and ensure that their bids are considered before those of their competitors. Indeed, even for the Football World Cup in Qatar in 2018, there have been multiple scandals that have come to light about the unethical practices employed by firms and their project managers.

While some might justify the practices such as lobbying, entertaining the clients by wining and dining them, and offering material and nonmaterial inducements to bag the projects as being part of the ways of doing business, it needs to be remembered that once a project is won based on such methods, the rest of the phases of the project are tainted and compromised as the costs incurred for the above mentioned aspects have to be recovered. This means that the project manager would have to look for ways in which to cut corners as otherwise, the project would become unviable.

Project Managers have a Wider Social Responsibility

The point that needs to be emphasized is that just like other professions such as Doctors and Lawyers, the field of project management has a wider obligation towards society and the wider stakeholders including consumers and other members of society. Therefore, the project managers cannot simply write off their responsibilities towards these stakeholders as yet another expense item and forget about it. Instead, they must proactively seek to follow ethical and normative rules of conduct at all phases of the project starting with the bidding and ending with the project handover.

Some Examples

Consider for example what would happen if a project manager had spent considerable money and time on the bidding and prospecting as well as on the initial scoping. He or she would be under pressure to recover some of these costs, and this would reflect and have its effect on the shoddy way in which the project is executed. This can result in the end product or the end project compromising on environmental norms thereby posing a danger to society. Indeed, being ethical also means that project managers have environmental and social responsibilities to shoulder. These can be deemed inseparable from the overall ambit of ethics and ethical norms that have to be followed.

Next, the actual people management and stakeholder management has to be done by following ethical norms. For instance, project managers involved in large and mega projects have a duty and obligation under law to keep the regulatory bodies informed and updated about the compliance or otherwise with various environmental norms. At no stage must the project manager hide information or fudge data regarding the compliance or otherwise with such norms. Doing so would mean that the project manager is failing not only the rules of conduct but also the broader responsibilities towards society.

Real World Project Management and Ethics

There would be some who would say that while all this sounds good on paper, it is not easy to follow this in the “real world”. They would contend that the real world of project managers is vastly different from what is mentioned in theory or textbooks and hence, they might simply shrug some of the points discussed here as sermons. To that, we would say that while we understand the very real constraints and pulls and pressures that they face, we are also of the view that one must start from somewhere and someone must take the lead, and hence, while ethics and norms are difficult to follow, somebody has to make a beginning.

In addition, we would also like to point that it is in the commercial interests of the project manager to abide by ethical norms as any exposure or leak of information regarding the actual processes being followed would be detrimental in terms of adverse publicity, investigations and court cases, and the increasingly apparent trend of a “Trial by Media” that is overly sensationalist and always on the lookout for such stories.

Conclusion

To conclude, while following ethical norms might be difficult for project managers, it needs to be remembered that at the end of the day, “the softest pillow is a clear conscience” and hence, being ethical and normative is an end in itself and the means can be thus defined and executed so that the end goals are met. Moreover, it is better for project managers to follow the rules and be ethical in all interactions as otherwise, longer term sustainability and reputation would take a beating and organizations take a considerable time before they recover from adverse situations. Thus, it is better to be safe than be sorry in the longer run.


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