Ethical Challenges for Project Managers: When a Project Manager has to make an Ethical choice in Project Management

by Cheryl Wilson PMP, PMI-RMP, CCEP

Project managers face various challenges every day in managing projects.  Not only do we face the normal challenges managing a project with scope changes, time crunches, cost overruns and risk potentials, but many of our decisions involve ethical parameters that we may not at first understand or perceive. Project Managers deal with political issues, budget accountability, HR challenges involving virtual teams, cultural differences, project sponsors, government regulations, vendor negotiations, and a myriad of communications challenges.

Regardless if the project manager is managing public or private projects, managing a project while navigating these dark inlets requires the project manager making decisions every day, which can lead to many ethical quagmires. While some of these ethical shoals may be easy to navigate around, some take the project manager down the path of having to stand-alone when faced with an ethical dilemma.  At first, the difference between the right and unethical decision when it involves managing a large project may not always be clear.  The buried reef to watch for is the crossing over to unethical decisions.

Ethics can be defined as the basic moral values, beliefs, and rules that we uphold in our lives. I believe the pressure of the project manager in meeting challenging deadlines makes this sometimes difficult. The project manager can blur the line between personal beliefs and what they will do as a  project manager in order to achieve a successful project.

So, what is the fine line between making ethical decisions as a project manager, and choosing to take the path of least resistance?  Is it natural for a project manager to be ethical? I once heard this quotation:  “do not sacrifice the immediate on the altar of the permanent.”  Sort of fits, does it not?  However, it begs the question: can a project manager be successful in their project and remain 100% ethical?

Often the project manager is faced with a situation that is not easily to resolve by normal management skills or knowledge gained from our training. Many times the project manager can reason their way to a decision when faced with an ethical dilemma, but this is when the project manager must draw from their ethical obligations and their training as a strong moral leader to make the right decision. Such ethical, professional behavior becomes more difficult as the project manager is witness to others who are not as ethical, gain the advantage.

Remember, ethics are the results of our moral values and beliefs training which we have reared with or experienced. Sometimes professional ethics are emphasized and taught in project management training.  What is the difference between morals and values and ethics?  Actually, do not they all provide behavioral rules?

  • Values are the standards or rules we use to make decisions between right and wrong or whether we as should do something or not do something.  Values govern our behavior and choices.  When we decided to do something, we make that decision on based on our values.
  • Morals in the dictionary are defined as motivation based on ideas of right and wrong.  Morals trace back to ties we have with society, government, or religious beliefs.
  • Ethics, on the other hand, are the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or group of people in a profession.

As project managers, we work under a “Code of Ethics” when making decisions, but as we all know, an ethical decision can be biased by our values and morals we personally define. The ethical tone or the lack of ethical standards of a project manager can also be traced back to the framework of the company as a whole.  If a company proactively establishes a set of ethical guidelines, a working code of conduct, the project manager is provided a moral compass so to say to help navigate the sometimes-murky waters involving ethical situations.

Ethical situations that a project manager may face can be some of the most difficult decisions that must be made since they involve weighting the possible outcomes against doing what is right or what is expedient. Expediency has always been a readily available excuse for tipping the scale into unethical behavior.

To provide an example of the consequences of an unethical decision that resulted in a $28.4 million fine, I wanted to tell you about a project I managed. I was hired on a team to put into place a compliance program, internal controls and training to prevent future Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations stemming from an unethical decision made at the Titan Corporation, a California-based defense and telecommunications company.  Not only were there unethical decisions made on the part of employees of the Titan Corporation, but also in the hiding of the funds within the books and records.

The Titan Corporation violated the FCPA when their employee took the bribe from the government official, Benin President Mathieu Kerekou, to build the telecom infrastructure in his African country.  In 2000, Titan’s Benin Agent asked Titan to pay $2.0 Million (USD) in “social payments” before the next presidential election which Titan completed using the cover of falsified invoices.

In March 2005, Titan Corporation pled guilty to three-counts stemming from improper payments made by a foreign sales agent to a Benin government official. Titan was required to pay the largest FCPA penalty ever ($28.4 million) at that time, including disgorgement of profits stemming from the illicit payments.  The unethical acts were discovered when Lockheed Martin was doing their due diligence to acquire Titan Corporation. Of course, Lockheed Martin declined to acquire Titan due to the FCPA violations.

The full story can be access at the following Department of Justice web site:

As project managers, we face these various challenges every day in managing our project. We, however, have consequences for these decisions, and being a professional means understanding the outcomes from our decisions. We will be addressing these and other ethics and compliance issues in this monthly column. Each issue will deal with a different set of circumstances or problems facing project managers in the execution of their duties.

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