Project Management Institute

The Dark Side of Projects

Uncovering Slavery, Corruption, Criminal Organizations, and Other Uncomfortable Topics

Guest Editors:

Giorgio Locatelli University of Leeds; [email protected]

Joana Geraldi Copenhagen Business School—CBS; [email protected]

Efrosyni Konstantinou University College London—UCL; [email protected]

Tristano Sainati University of Leeds; [email protected]

Phenomena such as modern slavery, corruption, money laundering, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, and illegal disposal of waste are common in several contexts and projects are no exception. For example, some construction projects use modern slavery to reduce labor costs (Russell, Lee, & Clift, 2018); information and communications technology (ICT) and media production projects exploit people desperately looking for a job (Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2013); and corruption is pervasive in the planning and delivery of infrastructure, particularly in megaprojects (Locatelli, Mariani, Sainati, & Greco, 2017). In this special issue, we group illegal and/or unethical practices, such as those listed above, under the umbrella term “the dark side of projects.” We argue that the dark side is a pervasive dimension in projects; it keeps practitioners awake at night and yet has not received the attention it deserves given the economic, social, and environmental implications it entails. To reverse the under-researched and under-theorized area of the dark side in projects, we call for research that sheds light on slavery, corruption, criminal organizations, and other uncomfortable project topics. 

We invite rigorous empirical or conceptual papers related to the dark side of projects with relevant implications for practice and theory. Authors are encouraged to draw on literature in other areas, such as behavioral economics and ethical and political philosophy. The scope of this call for papers is left open intentionally to promote wider participation. 

The Dark Side—A Ubiquitous Dimension of Projects

The dark side of projects is real and timely. Today governments and NGOs are compiling an increasing number of studies on the dark side of projects. For example, slavery1 is still a modern problem and shockingly high: the UK Home Office estimates that the number of victims and survivors of modern slavery in the United Kingdom (GOV.UK, 2019) is 13,000 and rising rapidly (IMGMS, 2018). The phenomenon is so relevant and timely that the UK “Modern Slavery Act” dates back to 2015. At the global level, there are over 40 million modern slaves, including about 25 million in forced labor. A consistent number of these modern slaves is based on project-based industries like construction. In the United States “unskilled migrants, predominantly from Mexico and Central America, account for approximately 25 per cent of the construction workforce in the USA. Undocumented and largely working without union representation, they are highly vulnerable to exploitation” (CIOB, 2015, p. 10).

Corruption is also a common problem. For example, the 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—a stereotypical megaproject in a developing country—was the stage of numerous corruption and bribery scandals. The project kicked off with a US$2 million bribery to buy votes to host the Olympics (Guardian, 2019, 5.7.192). The construction of the Olympic Park and its infrastructure has also allegedly involved corruption and money laundering (Times, 2018, 24.03.163). Brazil is not an exception. Transparency International, a leading global anti-corruption organization, published that the European Commission estimates that €120 billion (around US$163 billion) is lost each year to corruption, particularly in public procurement, which is the practice behind the eliciting and development of projects in the public sector (Kühn & Sherman, 2014). According to Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) estimates, money drained through corruption amounts to between 20% and 25% of the procurement budget, which amounts to approximately US$2 trillion annually (Transparency International, 2014).

The dark side of projects can also take on more nuanced forms. For example, through the waste of resources and public money on, for example, unused infrastructure and stadiums4 and the approval and execution of clearly questionable projects, such as a ski ramp in the middle of the desert5.

A Call for Research on the Dark Side of Projects

The dark side is receiving increasing attention from academics, practitioners, and decision makers in general management (Linstead, Maréchal, & Griffin, 2014). Yet, project scholars are only slowly following suit. From the 3,658 papers published in project management journals since 2000, only 41 addressed the dark side6. While topics such as corruption are sparsely covered, others, such as modern slavery, are virtually nonexistent.

We acknowledge that the dark side is difficult to study. Apart from the obvious methodological issues, there is a lack of a coherent definition about what constitutes the dark side. As a term, it is used almost euphemistically to allude to all things bad, immoral, and/or unethical in management—broadly speaking—and in the management of projects, more specifically. For example, Kets de Vries (1985) referred to the dark side of entrepreneurship to explore personality traits and behaviors of entrepreneurs, such as their propensity for control and suspicion of authority. Similarly, Noordhoff, Kyriakopoulos, Moorman, Pauwels, and Dellaert (2011) identified customer opportunism in supplier relationships as the dark side of innovation projects. These and other examples suggest that, in making difficult ethical and legal decisions, project stakeholders are left alone (and probably stay awake at night!) with limited guidance from professional institutions and academia. Our theories are silent on the mechanisms underlining such malpractices. Thus, the study of the dark side of projects offers a wide canvas for future research with potential theoretical contributions and practical relevance.

This call for papers purports to promote research on the dark side of projects. We invite the authors to reflect on what the dark side means in projects and in project decisions, along with its ethical and legal aspects. We welcome both contributions to theory and practice. While we hope project scholars will embrace the call, we also welcome contributions from scholars who do not typically write for project management journals but are familiar with the dark side in business.

Topics and Practicalities

We invite rigorous empirical or conceptual papers related to the dark side of projects, with relevant implications of practice and theory. Authors are encouraged to draw on literature in other areas, including behavioral economics studies on lies, ethical and political philosophy, and organized crime. The scope of this call for papers is left open intentionally to promote wider participation. The following questions are examples of topics that could be investigated. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and the editors of the special issue will be more than happy to discuss additional ideas:

  • Explanations: Why are some projects more likely to face a dark side than others? Which project aspects/ characteristics foster lies, slavery, and corruption and which ones can act as barriers?
  • Definitions/ontology: How can project stakeholders conceive the boundaries of what is right and wrong? What are/what can we consider lies, slavery, and corruption in projects? What does ethics mean in projects?
  • Thick descriptions and cases: What’s happening? Who is involved? What do dark exchanges look like and/or what motivates such exchanges?
  • Decisions: What are the ethical dilemmas leading to dark practices and how do project stakeholders frame and make these difficult choices? How do project stakeholders bear them on their shoulders? What is the impact of guilt/shame?
  • Behaviors: How do project stakeholders behave when faced with such issues? Are behaviors such as lies contagious, in other words, likely to spread over projects and industries? Why? Why not? Can we reverse normalized, embodied dark behaviors? How?
  • Innovation and new technologies: Are data purposefully used to cover up malpractice? If so, how? Are there examples of new technologies opening or closing avenues for the proliferation of the dark side of projects?
  • Success: How does the dark side influence project performance? How does it shape what is understood as success?
  • Grand Challenges: Does the dark side of projects contribute to the amplification of Grand Challenges? How? What is the relationship between the dark side of projects and wicked problems?
  • Methodology: Which research methods (and data) can be leveraged to investigate lies, slavery, and corruption in projects?

General Guidance

  1. The papers must relate to the realm of projects. Projects can be about the construction of infrastructure (e.g., power plants, sanitation, railways); development of software; humanitarian projects (e.g., related to refugees); R&D projects, and so forth. There are no constraints to the types of projects. The papers can also address one or more of the stakeholders involved in projects: project managers, suppliers, sponsors, local communities, government bodies, and so forth.
  2. Authors are encouraged to submit papers about both illegal and unethical phenomena. Both depend on elements such as the context (what is illegal in country X could be legal in country Y) and time (what was ethical years ago is considered unethical today).
  3. The paper must provide a clear contribution to knowledge. The authors may choose to emphasize theoretical or practical contributions. The contributions should be stated clearly in both the article and the cover letter.
  4. The paper must have excellent academic rigor. This includes a clear articulation of the gap in knowledge and positioning in the literature, presentation of the theory and/or theoretical discussion, and a rigorous methodology.
  5. Given the nature of the topic, there are clearly ethical and legal implications in carrying out this research. We expect that, especially for empirical papers, the authors will comply with the highest standards of ethics in management research.
  6. Literature review papers will be accepted only if they are of an exceptionally high standard. They must be based on a rigorous process and refer to high-quality sources. Even if most of the primary sources are likely to be outside the project management literature, the paper must be structured in a way that clearly provides a contribution to the project studies.

Our aim is to raise awareness of the dark side in projects. We encourage research that leverages our understanding of the topic and helps practitioners and policymakers to do the right thing. Thus, while we welcome empirical studies describing and analyzing the practices of the dark side, we don’t encourage dark practices in projects and hence will not accept papers praising malpractice, such as proposing normative implications in which bribery can be optimized and where the money can be found.

Submission Process and Key Dates

Authors should first submit a 1,000-word proposal to receive feedback about the suitability of the topic for the special issue. Please submit proposals directly to Giorgio Locatelli at [email protected]. Criteria for the assessment of contributions include:

  • Relevance for project studies
  • Relevance for the “dark side”
  • Clear articulation of the aim/objective
  • Clear articulation of the research method
  • The overall scientific credibility of the proposal

Upon proposal acceptance, full papers must be submitted online after carefully reviewing and following the PMJ® Author Guidelines ( en-us/nam/project-management-journal/journal203528 #submission-guidelines) and indicating the publication category special issue: “The Dark Side of Projects.” Submitted papers will be subject to the routine PMJ® double-blind review process with multiple reviewers. For questions, please contact the guest editors.

Timeline of the Special Issue:

Proposal submission deadline (send directly to [email protected]): 31 March 2020

  • Selected proposals invited for full paper submission: 30 April 2020
  • Full paper submission deadline: 30 September 2020
  • Notifications to authors after review: Winter 2020-21
  • Revisions and decisions: Summer 2021
  • Expected publication: Summer/Autumn 2021


  1. The definition of modern slavery is arbitrary and depends on the phenomenon investigated (Crane, 2013; Mende, 2019). Here we define it as “the recruitment, movement, harbouring or receiving of children, women or men through the use of force, coercion, abuse of vulnerability, deception or other means for the purpose of exploitation” (PHE, 2019).
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  6. This figure has been determined through a systematic search for the words brib*, corrupt*, crime, criminal, exploitation, illegal, malpractice*, money laundering*, slave*, and unethical in either the title, abstract, or keywords, in the core project management journals: Project Management Journal, International Journal of Project Management, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Construction Management and Economics, and International Journal of Project Organisation and Management.


CIOB (2015). Modern slavery: The dark side of construction. Retrieved from

Crane, A. (2013). Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation. Academy of Management Review, 38(1), 49–69.

GOV.UK (2019) Modern slavery. Retrieved from

Hesmondhalgh, D., & Baker, S. (2013). Creative labour: Media work in three cultural industries. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.

IMGMS. (2018). UK annual report on modern slavery 2018—Report of the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Modern Slavery. Retrieved from government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_ data/file/749346/2018_UK_Annual_Report_on_ Modern_Slavery.pdf

Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (1985). The dark side of entrepreneurship. Harvard Business Review, November. Retrieved from the-dark-side-of-entrepreneurship.

Kühn, S., & Sherman, L. B. (2014). Curbing corruption in public procurement: A practical guide by Transparency International. Retrieved from

Linstead, S., Maréchal, G., & Griffin, R. W. (2014). Theorizing and researching the dark side of organization. Organization Studies, 35(2), 165–188. London, England: SAGE Publications Sage UK.

Locatelli, G., Mariani, G., Sainati, T., & Greco, M. (2017). Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room! International Journal of Project Management, 35(3), 252–268.

Mende, J. (2019). The concept of modern slavery: Definition, critique, and the human rights frame. Human Rights Review. Springer Netherlands, 20(2), 229–248.

Noordhoff, C. S., Kyriakopoulos, K., Moorman, C., Pauwels, P., & Dellaert, B. G. (2011). The bright side and dark side of embedded ties in businessto-business innovation. Journal of Marketing, 75(5), 34–52.

PHE. (2019). Public Health England—Modern slavery and public health. Retrieved from government/publications/modern-slavery-and-public-health/modern-slavery-and-public-health#definition-of-modern-slavery.

Russell, E., Lee, J., & Clift, R. (2018). Can the SDGs provide a basis for supply chain decisions in the construction sector?. Sustainability, 10(3), p. 629. doi: 10.3390/su10030629.