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Episode 169 Premium: Ethics in Project Management

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Jeff FurmanIn this episode we are going to tackle a subject that I don't think we have looked at previously: Ethics in Project Management.

To shed more light on this we are talking to Jeff Furman who has a whole section of ethics in his Project Management Answer Book. We're starting out by looking at ethics in general, move on to ethics & legal aspects and then carefully tread our way though a number of interesting ethical situations.

Would you like to win a copy of Jeff's Book? That's easy! As always we are giving away 1 copy to our paying premium Podcast listeners and 1 copy is up for grabs. All you have to do is go to our Facebook Fan Page, find the notice about the book giveaway and leave a comment. We will draw the winners around the 9th of Feb 2011. So make sure you stop by before then.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: This is The Project Management Podcast. We bring project management to beginners and experts. Find us on the web at‑ or send your emails to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to this Premium Episode #169. I am Cornelius Fichtner. This is The Project Management Podcast™. As always, it’s nice to have you with us.

This is a premium episode. And this one is really only for you our premium listeners. Not like the last 2 premium episodes that we opened up to everybody. This one is really, really, really just for you. Thank you for your financial support of The Project Management Podcast.

In this episode, we are going to tackle a subject that I don't think we have looked at previously: Ethics in Project Management.

To shed more light on this, we are talking once again to Jeff Furman who has a whole section of ethics in his Project Management Answer Book. We're starting out by looking at ethics in general, move on to ethics and legal aspects and then carefully tread our way though a number of interesting ethical project management situations.

And now, let's think up some "creative" ways on how we can obtain this government permit faster. Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Female voice: The Project Management Podcast’s feature Interview: Today with Jeff Furman, author of The Project Management Answer Book and PMP® Instructor.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello Jeff and thanks a lot for coming back onto The Project Management Podcast to talk a little more about your book: “The Project Management Answer Book”.

Jeff Furman: Hi again, Cornelius.

Cornelius Fichtner: One important section that you have in your book is ethics in project management. Ethics, it’s one of those areas that we, project managers, don’t often address. So let’s open up not just the book but take this opportunity also to use your expertise and talk about ethics in project management. The obvious first question has to be: What is ethics?

Jeff Furman: Well, in the world outside of project management, ethics I would say is really doing the right thing meaning the most moral, the most fair.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. Is there an outside and inside? So does it mean anything different for project management?

Jeff Furman: Well, it does a little because when you’re on a project, profits come in and so every decision is very heavily factored if you’re thinking what’s the most successful for the project, what’s the most profitable so profit becomes a very big force which I very much agree is valid but I think it leads to people astray a bit because often I think people make the wrong decision. When it’s the wrong ethical decision, I think it’s because they’re going for short-term profit but they’re not thinking long term.

So I think that the difference is you really want to think what’s the best long-term decision which is usually really the most ethical decision. When you make a good ethical decision, you’re client is happy. They want to recommend you to more customers, that kind of thing. So the point is to make the most long-term decision and so you’re making the most ethical which is really also the best business decision.

Cornelius Fichtner: Right. But we also have to say that ethics is not always cost-related, right? So it’s not just if we look at this from the PMBOK® Guide point of view, it’s not just the cost chapter or the procurement chapter but all the other areas also involve ethics.

Jeff Furman: Yeah! In other words, treating people well. Everything that you would think of about ethics I think applies in the project management world but it has a special value when you’re thinking what’s the best decision for the project but also the most ethical, also the most long-term. It is actually tricky. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

I actually see ethics as an opportunity for project managers. If you can be a more ethical project manager, you are considered more professional. People will think you’ll have a competitive advantage over other project managers and the same with your company. If you’re company that becomes known for being ethical, usually that does tie with long-term growth and success.

Cornelius Fichtner: What about ethics and legal aspects, are they mutually inclusive or exclusive?

Jeff Furman: Yeah, that’s a great question because that does cause confusion. Something can be both illegal and unethical like robbing a bank. Everyone would agree with that. But there are the new ones where something is not illegal but it is unethical and so people will often if they do something that is not illegal, they’ll say: “Well it’s not illegal, what’s the problem.”

But for instance as an example, supposed you’re leading a project and your client thinks that you personally, let’s say your best people, your A team are going to be doing the work for them and that’s your agreement, maybe that’s not in the contract but supposed you get the deal, you sign an agreement and then you outsource to a cheaper provider, the customer wouldn’t like it. They would feel deceived. You didn’t break a law if it wasn’t in the contract. So this is an example pretty unethical behavior if you mislead the client but yet perfectly legal and yet in the end, this can hurt you. Your client won’t be happy.

And by the way, it’s really not a matter of opinion when it comes to this sort of thing. This is actually right in the PMI® Code of Ethics. I think many people are not aware, but literally it says things like that in the PMI® Code of Ethics, like negotiating in good faith. We don’t engage in or condone behavior that’s designed to deceive others. So most of what you would have a gut feel about on unethical decision, you would find that it’s well supported in the PMI® Code of Ethics. So this was an interesting thing. I’m very impressed with the code of ethics and with PMI’s permission, I was able to use the code in my book and I have a 1-page summary of the code and I use it with some of my examples.

Cornelius Fichtner: One other area where I often see PMP® Exam sample questions go and this happens on projects in real life actually is the question of bribes because even though they are illegal and often unethical, in some cultures, bribes are normal cultural behavior.

For us in the western world, bribing is a big no, no but there are cultures out there where bribes are just a way for the people to make an additional living. And oftentimes, the PMP® Exam samples questions, they are formulated in such a way that you could be led to think: “Oh yeah, bribing in this particular culture is normal so it’s an acceptable behavior.” And of course, you have to realize then that no, no matter how the question is formulated, bribing somebody to get some kind of additional benefit for your project is a big no, no.

Jeff Furman: Yeah, because you’re not making your decision based on what’s in the best interest of the project. You’re compromising quality, let’s say and so that has to be wrong.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah! And you earlier on, mentioned the example with the external customers and as project management consultants, we often find ourselves between the external customer, the person who buys a product or rather a project management consulting from us and then the needs of our own company. We sell you this service and we got hired to do this project. Now as a project manager, I’m kind of in between those two people, rock and a hot place. Where does my loyalty need to lie?

Jeff Furman: Yeah, I like that question. Loyalty is one thing. I think your loyalty has to be with your company. If I work for such and such company, my loyalty is to them but that doesn’t mean I want to do anything unethical if my company would like it so I still have to be ethical. I still have to put the client first as much as possible, but literally my loyalty is always to my company.

So it is a balance. And I try to think in my world, I try to pretend that I have three clients: I have the customer, I have the company and I have the project itself. And so I try to think of literally a triangle. I call it actually in my book an ethical triple constraint. It’s you’re always balancing the client, your company and the project and it’s a little bit like the classic triple constraint of scope, quality, time because if you hurt one of the three sides, you can hurt the project. If you favor, let’s say, the customer too much, then you’re hurting the project or you’re hurting your company and so on.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah but now, this is now getting into an obvious kind of question. What if one of those two sides is asking me to perform something that’s unfair?

Jeff Furman: Then you have to do the right thing whatever it takes. In some situations, you have to escalate. So escalation is one answer in a case like that. If a customer is really saying: “I demand this and I have to have it,” you can’t just go along with it no matter who is asking. So you really have to do the right thing and not hurt the project. That’s the case where I think escalating to the sponsor or bringing all the big people the powers that be together, it would be the answer.

Cornelius Fichtner: You mentioned the ethical triple constraints. And I’m wondering about the team here. Not sure if you put the team as part of my company. My question is this: Do I put my customer first or do I put my team first?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

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Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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