Ethics, leadership, and your family room sofa


by Bud Baker, Contributing Editor

ALL RIGHT, time for a quick quiz. Circle the right answer.

Q: Where can you find the Project Management Code of Ethics?

a. In A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)

b. In pretty much any reputable project management textbook

c. Neither of the above

d. Uhhh … there's a Code of Ethics?

If you guessed “c,” congratulations:Yes, there is a Project Management Code of Ethics, and it can be found quite readily on the PMI® website ( But I suggest that it's significant that the PMBOK® Guide and many of the leading reference books in our profession don't mention the Code, nor do they discuss the ethics of project management in much depth.

Such silence seems ironic, especially today. Project management ethics have suffered some very significant and very public setbacks. The sacrifices and heroism of glorious Olympic efforts have been tarnished by the over-zealousness of project leadership and the under-zealousness of the International Olympic Committee. A more tragic example unfolded from the recent earthquake in Turkey, As bodies were being dragged out from beneath scores of collapsed Turkish high rises, it appeared that many thousands of deaths would be laid at the feet of construction project managers who evidently appreciated some basic economic facts of life: steel-reinforced concrete is a lot cheaper if you leave out the steel reinforcing, and concrete—good and bad—all looks pretty much the same after it's poured.

Ornament or obligation? You have to decide what the Code means to you.

We would all agree that integrity is a crucial part of effective leadership. But is ethical conduct especially important in the management of projects? It may well be that it is, for several reasons. First, projects are often high-risk/high-reward/high-visibility ventures: when the stakes are high, the pressure to cheat—or at the very least, to cut corners—is high, as well. Second, the long project life cycle in many industries means that the consequences of a particular action—like leaving the reinforcement out of the concrete—won't be discovered for years, or even decades, or maybe never.


Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal, and is a member of the PMJ Editorial Review Board. Send comments on this column to [email protected].

Experts in ethics support strongly the adoption of a formal code of ethics as one necessary step in building a sense of business integrity. A code of ethics is, in fact, one hallmark that sets a profession apart from a mere trade association. It's a clear statement of the profession's core values, the rock-solid principles by which professionals live. And the PMI Code of Ethics does a generally good job of outlining the ethical principles of our profession, while leaving plenty of room for discussion and debate.

The Code's four articles prescribe basic principles of project management integrity. Some of the principles seem like boilerplate (“obey the laws of the country…”), and some are almost quaint (the need to “practice in a dignified manner”). Still others are a bit vague (“maximize productivity while striving to minimize cost”). Generally, though, the Code is useful. It's succinct, it's clearly written, and it touches on a variety of issues pertinent to project managers, including the need to avoid conflicts of interest, the need for honesty in progress reporting, and the need to look out for the well-being of our project team members. There's even what we might dub the “Olympic Organizing Committee Memorial Clause”: a farsighted, broad, and absolute prohibition against giving or receiving gifts from those with whom we do business.

FOR MOST PROJECT MANAGERS, the pursuit of business integrity is a regular way of doing business. At the same time, though, my informal surveys have revealed that the existence and precise content of the Code itself is not well known to many in our profession. Janet Miller, an Air Force project manager, has studied the Code, and has written about how—properly used—it can guide the course of project managers. But she also has argued that we need to make more frequent use of it. Otherwise, she suggests, our Code of Ethics is a lot like the living room sofa: pretty, and nice to look at, but not nearly as comfortable and well used as the sofa in the family room. It's time, she argues, that we start treating our Code of Ethics like that well-worn, comfortable family room furniture. We can begin to do that by being conversant with the Code, by using it often, and using it well. images

December 1999 PM Network



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