Project Management Institute

Ethical issues in project management

a case study of a novice project manager


Project: University Classroom Building

Location: Southeast United States

Budget: $34 Million

Project Delivery System: Competitive Bid

Party Involved: General Contractor

Assistant Project Manager Jim Rains was 26 years old, newly hired at a large commercial construction company, and was assigned to work on a $34 million dollar university classroom project in the southeast United States. Upon arriving on the job site, Jim was introduced to head superintendent Bob Moore who had been with the firm for 25 years. Bob was an exceptionally proficient organizer and was often requested by clients for the supervision of their construction projects. As the project began, things on a whole went smoothly. In fact, Jim was learning and taking on more project management responsibilities every day.

The winter and spring months brought many days of rain. Often, Bob would have to send several carpenters home because there was nothing at the construction site for them to do when it was raining. This did not sit well with the carpenters when they could only work 3 days per week (and were paid for 3 days work) because of rainouts. Other times, Bob would not send the carpenters home, but would have them sweep up the floors that were already under roof. This activity would normally take 2 hours with a crew of 4, but Bob would be forced to pay them for a full 8-hour day. Some days Bob, being one to hate inefficiency (and the potential loss of workers not returning to the site after being sent home), sent some of the carpenters (who would normally be just standing around and sweeping on rain days) to his home to work. There the carpenters would work on interior framing, finish carpentry, and hang drywall in Bob's new addition. Bob figured that as long as the carpenters were just hanging around the site with little to do, they might as well earn their pay.

The third time Bob sent carpenters to his house on a rain day; Jim decided to talk with Bob about the issue of billing the carpenter's hours to the job site construction cost. Bob was very noncommittal about the whole issue leaving Jim with the dilemma of confronting one of the company's best superintendents. After three more days of watching several carpenters go to Bob's house to work, Jim could no longer stomach the practice and told Bob that it was unethical to use company employees for personal work. Bob told Jim that if he did not send the carpenters home on rain days they would get paid for basically doing nothing. By sending the carpenters to his house to use their skills, he was keeping his workers motivated and satisfied instead of laying them off or having them do small, time-filling jobs.

Getting nowhere with the superintendent, Jim had some major decisions to make. Should he go to the project manager or someone in the home office? What would the company think about some new employee questioning the practices of a long-term employee?

Because Jim was new to the organization, he decided to talk with Bob one more time and asked that he discontinue billing employee hours to the construction project if they were in fact working on Bob's own house. Bob again refrained from doing anything, only commenting that the workers would soon be able to work a normal 5-day workweek because the rainy season was about to end. Jim still could not let the issue go.

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