6 May, 2019

Ethics: What’s the Code of Conduct for Project Managers?

Ethics may seem like a dry subject from an ancient branch of philosophy. But it is absolutely relevant to your life as a working Project Manager.

Ethics touches on so much of what you will do. It’s not enough to know your methodologies and bodies of knowledge. You have to know how to apply them to the difficult real-world dilemmas you’ll face.

And what makes this particularly hard is that, unlike processes and methods, there are no hard and fast rules about what’s right and wrong. People, politics, and moral questions are often messy and confused.

So you’ll need a guide to get you through them. And that’s the role of a professional code of conduct and an ethical framework. In this guide, we’ll examine what all of this means to you.

What is Ethics?

It seems to me we all instinctively understand ethics, based on our upbringing and early experiences. I think there is even a case to be made that some elements of common human ethical frameworks are hard-wired into us at birth.

And a large part of it is about our conduct: making the right choices.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do.

The hard part is doing it.

US General, H Norman Schwarzkopf

Conduct is one of the ‘Seven Pillars of Project Leadership Wisdom’ that we discussed in last week’s article.

Knowing What to Do

I’m not completely convinced that you always know the right thing to do. We sometimes face thorny moral dilemmas, where there is no single good choice among a sea of bad options. Often, there are just shades of compromises.

An ethical framework gives you principles that can help you make your choices in a consistent way. Consistent both to yourself, and with the prevailing norms of your culture, society, organization, and professional community.

Here’s a definition that I have constructed from numerous sources:

The principles that guide our behavior, choices, and day-to-day conduct.

Often rooted within a moral framework.

So, I take the view that in our profession, there won’t always be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. So ethics is about giving you a framework to gauge what may be right or wrong in the situation.

Moral Absolutes

Some people take an absolutist point of view. They believe there are universal rules that apply to everyone in every situation. Often, these track-back to religious teaching. 

A related philosophical perspective is Moral Realism. This view asserts that there are objective moral facts – or truths – in the universe. If we can discover them, they will guide us every time.

Relative Ethics

But often there isn’t one right answer. There may be several right answers; or just some least-worst answers. And, as a professional in a position of responsibility, you must choose between them.

So, many people find ethical ambiguity difficult. Because it compels them to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, rather than falling back on convenient rules and customs.

That is one of many reasons why professionals earn the money we are paid. It’s not just that we know and understand a body of knowledge – but we also need to implement it in an ethically ambiguous context.

What are the Ethical Dilemmas You’ll Face?

Ethics - What's the Code of Conduct for Project Managers?

The core ethical challenges you’ll face in your Project Management career include:

  • Building a ‘good’ professional career. This is one you can be proud of, and look back upon without regrets.
  • Properly asserting your rights, and defending those of the people around you.
  • Meeting your responsibilities, and doing so with fairness and respect towards all of your stakeholders.
  • Determining questions of right and wrong – especially when you need to balance differing interests.
  • Acting with honesty and integrity – especially where your own interests may clash with those of other stakeholders.
  • Making decisions that mean deciding between ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘differently-bad’ choices.

A common metaphor for ethics is that of a compass or a map, that will help you navigate these dilemmas.


In Taoist philosophy, you’ll find the concept of ‘Te’. Te is not about moral virtue, as so much of Western discussion of ethics is. Instead, it refers to ‘natural virtue’. This is the idea of doing what is right because it is right; not because it is virtuous. Te is the feeling that what you do follows the right path.

Why Act Ethically?

Or, to put it another way, what can good professional ethics do for you?

On the face of it, you can gain more by acting out of pure self-interest. And that would be a consistent ethical framework. But it’s not one that society will every endorse – whatever your cultural background.

However, the gain from un-ethical conduct is likely to be short term. The benefits of good ethical conduct are long-term. It will help you build and lasting and sustainable career. Because, a lot of the opportunities you get (or miss) are down to your reputation.

I’ll offer you three principle benefits of an ethical code.

Reason 1: Ethics as Moral Map

As we’ve already seen, the metaphor of a map or compass is common in discussing ethics. But as a professional, you’ll face many choices in your career, which you won’t be able to determine from a technical persective.

An ethical code will give you a consistent basis to make those choices. It’ll be one that will help you account for your choices to others, and sleep well at night, for yourself.

Reason 2: Ethics as a Thinking Tool

Often, it is hard to put your finger on why you and another colleague disagree. Both of you can support your points of view with solid technical reasoning. Both positions you advocate could equally lead to acceptable outcomes.

But sometimes the difference lies in the domain of ethics, rather than reason. And an ethical code will help you zoom-in to the nub of your disagreement. And, having done so, it will help you isolate the essence of the choice in front of you.

You may choose to use your ethical framework as a basis for building your case and arguing your point. Or you may simply use it to asses, critically, whether to hold to, or amend, your pont of view.

Reason 3: Ethics as a Source of Professional Advantage

People like people we can trust. And often, we are prepared to pay a premium for that asset: trust.

And, if your reputation is one of high integrity and ethical behavior, you’ll find a lot of employers and stakeholder willing to place their trust in you.

On the other hand… What if people know you’ve been prepared to make moral compromises and behave unethically? Yes, there will be some people keen to employ you. But are those the roles you really want?

For a different, but related, view, do take a look at Alankar Karpe’s article, ‘Being Ethical is Profitable’ at projectmanament.com.

Winning Professional Trust

Winning trust in yourself, as a project professional is one of the benefits of ethical behavior. I’d like to set it into the context of a brilliant piece of work by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford, in their fantastic book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’ (US|UK).

The book introduces their trust equation to illustrate how trust arises in a professional setting.

Now, only a fool would use this to create a quantitative measure of trust, the general patterns the equation creates feel right to me. So, it’s a powerful tool to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in earning the trust you want.

The Trust Equation
The Trust Equation from ‘The Trusted Advisor’ by David H Maister, Charles H Green, Robert M Galford

The Trust Equation says that the trust people will place in you (T) equals your:

  • Credibility (expertise, knowledge, experience), plus your
  • Reliability (meeting your promises, doing what you say, keeping people informed), plus your
  • Intimacy with them (professional and personal relationship), all divided by your
  • Self-orientation (the extent to which you prefer to act out of self-interest)

The Trust Equation and Ethics

Ethics comes into the Trust Equation at every point:


As a trusted professional, you will never claim knowledge or experience you do not have. You won’t accept the leadership of a project for which you don’t have the right skills or background. And you will certainly never claim qualifications you don’t have.

Of course, you may want to take on a role that will push you beyond the limits of your knowledge and experience. That’s how we develop and I hope you will do this constantly. So, what matters here, regarding ethical behavior, is that you fully disclose this to your employers.


What could be a greater matter of ethical behavior than doing what you say you’ll do and keeping to your professional commitments. This is what integrity is all about.


As you build your relationships with clients, stakeholders, and team members, they will trust you with professional, personal, and private information.

This is as it should be. It’s the way human relationshps work. But how will you use that information. Ethical behavior requires that you maintain confidentiality and never use what people disclose to you in confidence, for your own advantage or to their detriment.

Except… what about if they disclose law-breaking or malfeasance? You aren’t a lawyer. You also have a duty to expose illegal activity.

But how will you balance your ethical duty towards confidentiality in the case of ‘bad behavior’? And how bad does it need to be? There are often narrow boundaries between right and wrong. And sometimes those thin boundaries are fuzzy.


This is the term in the Trust Equation that has the most obvious bearing n ethics and professional conduct. Your responsibility is to act in the interests of the project and its stakeholders.

Where you have an interest, you must declare that interests and take yourself out of the decision-making process.

An Ethical Framework: The Components of Professional Ethics

As a professional, there’s a lot you need to keep track of, ethically. I suggest there are eight primary concerns:

1: Integrity

  • Doing what is right: not what is easy.
  • Keeping to the comitments and promises you make.
  • Following the evidence, wherever it leads.
  • Being the person you portray yourself to be.

For me, integrity is at the heart of professionalism and good conduct. We can probably encompass the next seven sections inside this one. But I am going to split them out…

2: Respect

I’ll place this second, because my feeling is that, when you treat everyone with respect, ethical behavior becomes a lot easier – almost automatic. The difficulties arise when an action that respects one person or group will necessarily make another feel less-respected.

3: Discretion

This is linked to respect. It is respect:

  • for other people’s privacy, and feelings
  • and for the confidential information and intellectual property of organizations

But dealing in confidences – those of our organizations, teams, and stakeholders – is so much a part f our roles as project leaders that I think this deserves a place of its own in my list.

4: Responsibility

You’ll make mistakes. There’s no problem with that; if it’s an honest error and not the result of carelessness or dishonesty.

But own them.

Take responsibility for everything you do, and learn from your experience. If you try to shed responsibility for a mistake – even if it’s only in your own mind – you won’t learn from it.

When you get a work package to deliver, or a project to lead, take responsibility for your work. Act as if your whole career rests on the way you approach it. Because, maybe, it does.

5: Honesty

Of course, we expect professionals to act honestly. Does this really need to be said?

Well, yes, I’m afraid it does.

Encountering gross dishonesty has been a rare occurrence in my career, happily. But:

  • ‘It wasn’t me’
  • ‘I didn’t do anything’
  • ‘There’s nothing I could have done’

These kind of primary school excuses are, sadly, common. Allocating blame and shedding responsibility for small errors are dishonest. Don’t.

6: Openness

Openness goes with honesty. But it’s one thing to not lie: it’s another to offer up the whole truth.

Good governance requires transparency. We need to be wholly open with our stakeholders and decision-makers. If they are to make robust choices, they need all of the information available. If it’s not an informed decision, it’s not a robust decision.

7: Fairness

I really do feel that human beings are wired for fairness. When we perceive something that is unfair, most of us feel some shade of discomfort from mild irritation to outright outrage.

This is about taking an impartial stance in any decision-making, and treating people with equal respect. We need to assess information objectively…

Take nothing on its looks: take everything on the evidence.

There is no better way.

The lawyer, Jaggers, in Great Expectations by Charles dickens

There’s an overlap here with respect. Because the greatest source of unfairness in society is prejudice, and prejudice and disrespect are intimate associates.

8: Generosity

I think there is an ethical imperative to go a step beyond fairness. To treat other people with generosity. This does not necessarily mean physical generosity and gift-giving. And it certainly is not about inducements – which are illegal in many countries and unethical in most.

This is about a generosity of spirit. It:

  • gives people the benefit of the doubt
  • acts ‘as if’ you can trust them, until you learn the truth
  • offers support and recognition
  • puts people ahead of mindless rules and procedures

A Professional Code of Conduct for Project Managers

Professional codes of conduct set out an ethical framework to guide you. They will help you decide what you should and shouldn’t do.

Beware: Cultural Bias

Inevitably, professional codes of conduct embed ethical frameworks that derive from the prevailing culture within which the organization that created them sits. And each culture has its own precise range of ethical and moral norms.

Whilst people are largely the same the world over, our cultural baggage differs massively, through influences like history, geography, religion, and politics.

I won’t get into a debate here about rights and wrongs. All I will say is two things:

  1. Any code of conduct will reflect its culture
  2. The codes of conduct I can easily sign up to (and the ones I’ll point you to) come from my culture (British) and ones just like it (from a broad Western European enlightenment tradition)

Four examples of an Ethical Code

The four examples I’ll offer you are:

  • The Project Management Institute (PMI) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
  • The Association for Project Management (APM) Code of Personal Conduct
  • The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) Code of Ethics
  • The MBA Oath

The Project Management Institute (PMI) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

The PMI not only has a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: it references it in its Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBoK Guide). This makes it a requirement of its two principal professioanl exams and qualifications:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Certified Assoiate in Project Management (CAPM)

It is a well-written and comprehensive code that I’d have no problem signing up to, were I a member. The thing I find curious is that PMI says it applies to all members, and non-members who:

  • hold a PMI certification
  • apply to start a PMI certification process
  • serve PMI in a volunteer capacity

Curiously, it does not apply to PMI’s paid staff, who aren’t members or fall into one of those categories. Hmm.

Structure of the PMI’s Code

The PMI structures its Code of ethics and Professional Conduct around four values:

  1. Responsibility
  2. Respect
  3. Fairness
  4. Honesty

It also recognizes the inherent ambiguity f some ethical dilemmas, as we’ve discussed above. So, wisely, it sets aspirational and mandatory standards.

The PMI Ethical Decision Making Framework

The PMI also publishes a short, pithy, and excellent document on ethical decision-making. If you are interested in decision making, do take a look at:

The Association for Project Management (APM) Code of Personal Conduct

The APM’s Code of Professional Conduct is much more legalistic in style. I’ll confess, I don’t like it.

There’s nothing in there that I disagree with. It’s just turgidly written and feels like a set of laws. Indeed, APM refers to its code both as:

  • ‘the elements of professional standards and ethical behaviour
  • and as a set of ‘rules’

It is less a guidance document for professionals, as the PMI’s is, and more a framework for what the APM expects of its members and what it will do if someone breaks the code.

The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) Code of Ethics

If you want to learn about ethics in business, you won’t do better than the IBE’s learning package: Understanding Business Ethics.

And they have a simple, well structured Code of Ethics for their own staff, that we can learn from. It covers a lot of ground but focuses on three core values of:

  1. Respect
  2. Openness
  3. Integrity

This is far more of a practical guide than the other two so far, and would be a great inspiration if you need to draw semthing up for your own organization.

The MBA Oath

Many members of our OnlinePMCourses community will regard yourselves as ‘professionals’.  Professional project managers, risk managers, change managers, and managers of all sorts. 

But what does professional mean?

And how does it relate to the question of ethics and morality in projects? I am going to revert to an old fashioned definition:

a professional is someone who, at the end of their training, has sworn, or ‘professed’ an oath. 

Oath-taking has gone rather out of fashion these days. Even very few doctors take the Hippocratic oath.  Possibly because this now sounds a little outdated.

The MBA Oath is an initiative that began at Harvard Business School. It was started by two professors: Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria.

[Professor? One who professes knowledge.]

Graduates of the MBA programme are offered the opportunity to swear an oath.  You can find out more at http://mbaoath.org/ .

Do take a look at the actual oath.  Like me, you will probably think ‘that’s not exactly what I would have drafted”. But never mind.  The fact is, two people did draft it, and, what’s more, over 10,000 people have professed that oath.

These men and women are the new professionals. They are people for whom the title ‘professional’ really means something.  So, I’d like to start a small campaign.  As project managers, risk managers and change managers, we need an oath.  What would you put in one? 

Maybe we need an oath.

Ethics and Project Management Governance

Regular readers will know that good governance is something of a hobby-horse of mine and I bang on about it rather a lot. It’s not for nothing: good governance matters.

Good governance delivers better project outcomes, and it does so with greater rigor, transparency, and accountability. But I’ve made that case elsewhere, already.

So, here, I want to bly make the connection between your personal ethics and code of conduct, and the formal governance of your project.


The first responsibility of governance is direction-setting. To me, this links most closely with integrity (in setting aside self-interest) and fairness.


Decision-making also requires integrity – this time in the way you select and use data for the decision process.

This also links closely to the need to take responsibility for the decisions you make on your project.


Openness and transparency make oversight possible. A good Project Manager will welcome oversight and make it easy for the governance tier to do its work. Because a good PM will want to take responsibility for your work. So, you’ll be keen to find errors and create the opportunity to make imprvements.

What is Your Perspective on Ethics and Project Management?

This is a topic where opinions matter – there is no right and wrong. So, please do share your opinions and, as long as you do so respectfully, I’ll be delighted to respond to them.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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