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Ethical considerations for project professionals

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It is quite poignant to be writing about ethics at a time when political questions are being asked about transparency at the heart of government.

'Ethics' comes from a Greek word, and goes back to Aristotle’s time, arriving at the 21st Century via philosophers such as Descartes, John Locke, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mary Warnock, and many others. Ethics is sometimes used interchangeably with morals (which comes from a Latin word, just for variety). Both terms have in common the concept of guidance of actions according to a set of beliefs, values, or rules. It is these actions or behaviours that are the ‘output’ in the real world, of some ethical framework.

Many professional bodies have some code of ethics to guide their members. Our own APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition does this; describing the ‘scope of ethics’ as a mixed bag of actions, rules and values. The APM’s Code of Professional Conduct has a section on Personal Responsibilities, which is also useful as it sets out guidance for acting honestly, not misleading others, considering public interest, watching out for conflicts of interest and so on (politicians, take note).

It gets even more complicated - cultural norms within different organisations vary depending on their sector, maturity and vision, and this is exactly why there are so many codes of conduct and ethics. Jobbing project professionals often must read and sign a client’s code as part of induction before they get their building pass. However, in truth these are only there regulate your behaviours (including language).

So where is the poor project professional to turn? Do you feel you actually need any guidance? Projects can be hard places where tough decisions must be taken, often quickly. Is there a risk if an ethical rule is bypassed? A cynical view would be that these codes are only there to protect the organisation against being sued.

But the fact is, you don’t just adopt and internalise some new set of rules when you join APM, RICS, ANLP or your client’s project team. You probably already knew them, and you got them through growing up in a family, society, or faith from a very early age.  Take a basic one – ‘telling the truth’, most parents instil this in us from the moment we can understand our language.

Then, when we grow up and find ourselves joining APM, we encounter the Rules of Professional Conduct – and find it says there ‘act honestly, do not mislead’ – and we think ‘aha, mum and dad were right’ (note that we do not deduce that mum and dad were APM members). My point is that all these Codes and Rules referring to ethics are simply written-down versions of some of what we already believe – our core values. It’s surprising that neither the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition nor the Code of Conduct urge us to strive to deliver what we promised, even though this is the core of what we do as project managers. Even as kids we were probably told to keep our promises.

Values (and our beliefs about them) are the reasons why we live as we do, they are the things that we hold as important, and they are drivers of our behaviour. How do you know whether you hold something as a value? Usually, when that value is transgressed, you get a feeling, an emotion.  You get a ‘gut reaction’. Of course, this can vary from person to person. For one person, giving good value for money is a value – they try to do it and they expect it and are upset when they don’t get it. For another, value for money may just be a bonus, an option.

Blogs like this commonly urge their readers to do something, consider something new or change in sometimes radical ways, often without any guidance on how to get there. You might think ‘OK, but how do I do that?’, and it’s a good question.

This blog is not going to attempt that. The subject is too wide and deep. If I am suggesting anything at all it would be to reflect on what values are driving you to act. One way to probe our own ethics is to ask ourselves some searching questions and try to answer these as honestly as possible:

  • Am I comfortable in doing [this, whatever it is], whether or not others are?
  • If I do what I think I should, but nobody thanks me, would I still do it again?
  • Did what just happened [my or somebody else’s action] make me feel positive or negative?
  • In doing [this] am I thinking only of my needs at the expense of the needs of colleagues, clients etc?
  • In doing [this] could I introduce a risk or ethical problem somewhere else or for myself or another person?
  • If everybody did [this] would the world / profession / P3 be better off?
  • If asked, am I able to explain my values or why I act as I do to somebody else?

There are no right or wrong answers, but as you read them, did anything happen? One or two have probably caused a blip somewhere in you, whether a memory or a feeling (either warm or a shudder). If you experienced something, it probably means that this is your own ethical code; your values being accessed.

Since ethics, values and behaviours are so interconnected, it’s worth considering the action part. After all, there is little point having values or a code of ethics if when it comes down to the wire, you don’t act. This often needs another personal resource – courage. Then, when called on to act it may be a hard choice to do what you think is right, especially when there are powerful vested interests ranged against you (that’s why we have legislation to protect whistle-blowers).

Again, no magic bullet, but you could try to ‘future-frame’ by imagining yourself in the future, looking back on yourself now, at the point where you could have acted (or chose not to). What does it feel like? What advice would you give your (past) self? Then bring yourself back to the present and let your values guide your action, with that wisdom of what it will be like to live with the consequences. Consistently acting or behaving in accordance with your own values is a pretty good indicator that you do have your own code of ethics and you are trying to stick to it. That’s a pretty good place to be, both as a human being and as a project professional.

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