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Ethical Project Management

Every project manager who passes the PMI® certification exam and becomes a Project Management Professional (PMP®) has read PMI® Code of Professional Ethics. This code lays down the ground rules for managing projects ethically and even offers advice on how to confront situations where the project manager is pressured into non-ethical behavior. The code is an excellent guideline in so far as it goes but can’t cover every dilemma the project manager is liable to encounter, nor offer specific advice on how to handle every situation.

Project managers will face an increase in ethical dilemmas as the profession becomes more widely recognized as a formal discipline. As the trust that business places in the profession increases project managers will be asked to take on more responsibility. With increased responsibility, especially in the area of finances, will come ethical dilemmas; situations will arise that require the project manager to make a decision based on their employer’s or customer’s policies and their own code of ethics. Following your employer’s or customer’s policies is fairly straight forward, unless these policies conflict with your own code of ethics. Problems arise when these policies don’t apply and your experience and knowledge haven’t prepared you for the situation you face.

Let me give you a case in point. Sunday’s Toronto Star featured a story about a senior TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) project manager who hired his girl friend to take photographs for a project he managed. There were numerous problems with this action, even though the amount of money involved was relatively minor: $50K. Firstly, there was no formal vendor selection process followed and secondly TTC has a policy stating that managers responsible for selecting vendors must declare a conflict of interest when a vendor they have a relationship with is bidding on a contract. The project manager failed on both counts. The reporter, Kevin Donovan, investigated the story and found that the project manager was responsible for a project sub-contracted to development company AECOM. As the project manager he was one of 3 people who had the authority to sign invoices and contracts for the project. The project manager approached AECOM, and according to the Star reporter, instructed them to hire a photography company to photograph the project’s progress, even though the TTC/AECOM contract did not call for that work. He "recommended” a photography company, who it turned out, was a personal (female) friend.

His relationship with the friend is fairly hazy. All that the reporter knows at this point is that the PM is married and his children have worked for the friend in the past. The PM at first denied knowing the photographer but later changed his story to acknowledge he "had coffee in her house”. Friends of the PM say that he has led a "double life” for years and recall being at numerous social occasions with the couple. It may seem unfair that this gentleman has his private life featured in the local papers, but his relationship with the person he rewarded with $50K of TTC money is integral to the story, and to the degree of his misstep. The impact on his family is collateral damage.

The TTC project manager is the author of his own misfortune. He has been off work since the paper researched the story with the TTC and can no doubt expect more negative consequences as the details are probed by senior officials at the TTC. To some extent he is also a victim of bad timing. The story comes at a time when the TTC is under intense scrutiny in the press for poor customer service and a story that might have been featured in the paper’s GTA section at another time was the headline story in the paper’s first section on Sunday.

Fortunately for the 10,000s of PMP® certified project managers out there, this fellow was not PMP® certified. Unfortunately his actions will undoubtedly give the profession a black eye – guilt by association.

The mistakes that the TTC PM made a fairly clear; so are the lessons for other project managers. This PM violated his employer’s policies on spending company money which clearly stated he was in conflict of interest when he participated in the decision to engage his friend’s services. Project managers should read and understand company policies on every aspect of their jobs. This project manager may, or may not, have signed the TTC’s policy statement. Even if someone at the TTC slipped up and did not have him sign the form acknowledging that he had read and understood the policies and consequences of not following them, he had to have been aware of them. What about situations where, for whatever reason, the company has not codified its policies in this area? Let you conscience be your guide. Read the PMI®’s Code of Ethics and commit it to memory. If you think that the action you are about to take in the spending of the company’s money might be unethical, it probably is. If you honestly don’t know whether it is or not, consult with someone knowledgeable in your organization – your Human Resources organization is a good place to start. Your own moral compass will also help you make the right decisions. Ask yourself the question: "Would I be comfortable if my actions were reported on the front page of the newspaper or featured on the 6:00 pm news?” If the answer is "no”, ask yourself why to find the root cause of your discomfort.

As a side note, I think the project manager working for the construction company, AECOM, had a far more difficult decision to make. Firstly, did they do anything ethically wrong? I would say that they did if the newspaper report was accurate. If you are managing a project for a client, or employer, and are approached by your customer (in this case the TTC) to hire someone to do work that does not form part of the contract, you do them a disservice by acceding to the demand and spending that money.

The newspaper story does not delve into the actions of AECOM at any length so let’s explore some different scenarios and the AECOM project manager’s options in each. The first scenario is that the TTC PM approached and asked the AECOM PM to do him a favour – hire his friend. Hiring the TTC PM’s friend to do work not spelled out in the contract is clearly inappropriate. Even though the AECOM PM had nothing to gain personally, the payment of money to perform work not agreed upon is not ethical on their part. The second scenario, one I think is far more likely, is that the TTC PM either explicitly or implicitly threatened a negative consequence for AECOM if the friend was not hired. This puts the AECOM PM in a much more difficult position. There is the potential for a negative impact on AECOM no matter what the PM does. Give in to the pressure and AECOM spends money on work not agreed upon. Refuse to give in to the pressure and the TTC PM may negatively influence AECOM’s ability to profit from the current contract, or bid on future contracts. The threat the TTC PM posed to AECOM was very real as he was one of 3 TTC officials authorized to sign contracts.

There is simply no "right” answer in this scenario. You could refuse to hire the friend and cost your company millions in contract work. You could give in to the pressure (as happened in this case) and your company is out $50K and you risk association with a scandal that garners headlines in the local papers and news broadcasts. I think there is only one practical solution for the PM in this case and that is to turn over responsibility for the response to a senior executive in AECOM. The key here is your ability to mitigate the risk of retaliation if you don’t yield to the pressure. If you have a network at the customer’s organization which can and will protect your organization from any retaliation, go ahead and respond on your own, but make sure your network is intact first! Otherwise, you need to ask for help and hope someone at your organization can protect it from any subsequent retaliation. I’m certainly not saying that was not done in this case; I have no way of knowing that. I am saying that, if the PM made the decision on their own, they have cause to regret it now.

One more recommendation: there is plenty of help and expertise out there when you are confronted with an ethical dilemma. Start by reading and understanding all the policy statements in your organization. Ask questions if you don’t fully understand any of the policies. Read and understand the PMI® Code of Ethics. This is not a large document nor is it particularly difficult to understand. Where a policy doesn’t cover your situation, or there is no policy, consult with an HR representative. You can also consult with more experienced project managers in your organization, or at your local PMI® chapter. If none of these resources is available to you, or they are unable to help you, ask for help from your project sponsor, or another senior executive connected to the project. Don’t make a decision you aren’t comfortable with and then hope it doesn’t come back to haunt you. I’m sure that neither project manager involved in the TTC case could have foreseen the damage this situation would do to their careers and home life.

The PMI® PMP® certification exam tests candidates on their Code of Ethics. Candidates who seek PMI®certification must study and understand that code before being able to pass the exam. The code, your organization’s HR policies, and your common sense should be all you need to make the right decision in most cases involving an ethical dilemma. If it isn’t, seek out one of the resources described above for help.