Project management is a decision-driven enterprise, and while many of the required decisions are inconsequential, many more involve and affect people, resources, and the natural environment. Decisions of this type require careful thought, especially when conflicts between factors occur and the potential for risk arises. If a project manager is to make the sort of wise decisions that engender trust in stakeholders and adhere to the principle of doing no harm, working from a solid ethical foundation is essential.

Defining Ethics

Ethics is a slippery concept. Sociological research reveals that business people tend to define ethics according to what their feelings tell them about right or wrong, along the lines of religious beliefs or legal requirements, or in light of the standards of behavior accepted by society. Although the variety here serves to illustrate the difficulty in pinning down a precise meaning of “ethics”, all of these viewpoints miss the mark.

Ethics is not personal feelings because following feelings may cause us to avoid doing what is right. Many religions advocate high ethical standards and can serve to motivate such behavior, but a religious association implies that ethics only applies to religious people, an obviously false interpretation. Like religion, the law may incorporate and seek to enforce standards for what most citizens would view as ethical behavior. However, history shows that law is often unethical, for example as with past laws regarding slavery and apartheid. Finally, it is difficult to know what society accepts or not; there is often a lack of consensus and many cases where an entire society has become ethically corrupt.

According to the Markukula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, “Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.” Ethics draws on consistent and well-founded reasons to impose certain restrictions and obligations on our activities so that we can live together peacefully and attain the full potential of human society. Ethics also refers to the examination and development of our personal beliefs and conduct to ensure that we strive to maintain the standards established in what is often referred to as a “code of ethics”.

Ethics and Project Management

Ethics is an important consideration in effective project management. Dedication to high ethical standards serves to elevate project management as a profession and continually raises the bar for future standards. Moreover, stakeholders, employees, vendors, and taxpayers alike are reassured when project managers acting on their behalf maintain high standards as guides in their decision making. And, from a practical standpoint, being ethical improves business relationships, reduces project risks, and boosts chances of success.

Ethics for the field of Project Management have been concisely defined by Mark A. Langley, President and CEO of the Project Management Institute, as the discipline of “how to do it best”. The PMI has created two resources to support project management practitioners’ efforts to do what is right when faced with dilemmas and difficult choices: a Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct and an Ethical Decision-Making Framework.

Ethics is Ultimately Personal

The PMI materials on ethics provide key guidance to project managers in private industry. In the public sphere, President Barack Obama Program signed the Management Improvement and Accountability Act (PMIAA) into law on December 14, 2016. The law implements strict, ethics-based program management rules in order to increase transparency, trust, and success in government project work and ensure that managers working in government programs follow best practices when making decisions for taxpayers.

Such formal guidelines and mandates are certainly useful tools for navigating an environment filled with dilemmas and pitfalls that can derail our dedication to high ethical standards. However, our choices between the ethical or unethical are ultimately internal, instinctual decisions made based on values that shape our thoughts, words, and behaviors. Regardless of any formal codes of ethics that may be in place, project management professionals have an obligation to adhere at all times to the highest ethical standards.

This article is provided by Timewax, a company who offer project planning and resource management software to help you run your company efficiently.

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