The Project Manager’s Ethical Dilemma

Often, the project manager is faced with an issue that is not easily resolved by theory or the knowledge acquired from formal training. These types of problems are usually not of a technical nature and more often tend to be ethical or human resource issues. The satisfactory answer is often debatable and may suit one set of circumstances and yet not another. It is these difficult issues where the PM must draw from their practical experiences, moral and ethical obligations, and sometimes the rule of law.

For example, international projects take the PM out of the comfort zone of the local laws and customs that they are used to working at home. In many host countries, doing business results in ambiguity and contradictions from the way business is conducted at home – which leads to the question “What is the ethical or right thing to do?” Sometimes a practice that is permissible in the foreign country is not at home. Will making a payment to a foreign government official to obtain permits, licences or police protection be seen as a bribe or just “facilitating” and “expediting” to get things done?

In such cases, it is useful to have a set of guidelines. Some companies have a set of best practices or code of conduct to assist, however, many do not. The following questions developed by Lax and Sebenious.(1) have proven useful in deciding the correct approach:

  1. Are you following rules that are generally understood and accepted for the task taking place? For example, in poker, bluffing is accepted as part of the game.
  2. Are you comfortable publicly discussing and defending your action? Would you be comfortable if your friends were aware of it? Your family? On the front page of a newspaper?
  3. Would you want someone to do it to you? To your family?
  4. What if everyone acted that way? Would the resulting society be desirable?
  5. Are their alternatives that rest on firmer ground?

Some countries such as the U.S. have a legal framework (The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – FCPA, since 1977) for conducting business abroad. For instance, it states with respect to bribery that it is a crime for a bribe to be made to a foreign official or political party for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business or for directing business to another person even if this flows through an intermediary or consultant. However, not all payments are defined as “bribes”. Payments for “routine” government action are allowed under the FCPA including the dispensing of permits, licences and police protection as noted in the example. Thus, it is important to distinguish between those that are acceptable and unacceptable by noting the various laws of both your own country and those in your host country.

In some cases, a kind of opposite condition arises – rather than laws not existing and not being enforced, a law may be enforced in the host country but not allowed at home. For example, in the U.S. many companies have mandatory drug testing. Assume that you are the project manager of a Canadian project team with a contract in the U.S. that requires some of your project members to work at the U.S. job site. To gain entry, they must first submit to the drug test. In Canada, employees have the right to refuse such tests – and some of your project team approach you indicating that they are opposed to submitting to the test and have the legal right to do so. Click here to see the full article.

It is important for the project manager to approach these difficult issues with care and conduct their affairs within the appropriate ethical and legal framework. Guiding principles can also be gained from the five Lax and Sebenious questions, company value statements, and codes of conduct. This provides the project manager, along with their experience, the additional resources to resolve these tough situations.

(1) The Manager and the Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain by David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius 1986.

Janet Williams

Janet Williams, associate of Business Improvement Architects, is an experienced Business Consultant, Project Manager and Instructor. Janet specializes in Project Management and Business Process Improvement and has worked for the Public and Private Sector, including non-profit organizations.
In her consulting and project management work Janet's focus has been to help organizations navigate and manage change as they implement their strategic objectives. She assists organizations with strategic assessments, analyzing problems and providing recommendations for corrective actions. Based on the needs of the organization, Janet provides project leadership and project team support. Throughout the project life cycle Janet builds and manages effective project teams, creates solid project plans and ensures communication reaches all levels of the organization.