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The importance of ethics in professional life

The APM has just become a Chartered body which is something to be celebrated.  It is a recognition of a major step-change for our profession.  But with this higher profile and status come greater responsibilities for both practitioners and the profession as a whole (and rightly so). This transition offers us the chance to review the component parts of our profession and ensure we modernise and reform where needed.  

For most professions there are three component strands to professional standards – usually described as knowledge, competence and behaviours (in the APM we describe it as the five dimensions of professionalism but they map well to the three strands).  Put simply, qualifications equate to the development of knowledge, with CPD providing the keeping up to date and staying competent. But the third leg to this professional tripod, arguably the ‘Cinderella’ part, is that of ethical conduct and behaviour.

In the court of public opinion and the modern age of professional standards this third element of ethical conduct and behaviour can no longer be assumed, like a ‘my word is my bond’ handshake, to be sufficient.  No, the public interest and transparency of the modern world require professionals to be more overt in demonstrating their integrity. In an age of decreasing deference, and  in some cases, down-right suspicion of experts, it is important to have – and been seen to have – exacting ethical standards of behaviour.  Knowledge and competence without integrity is a dangerous combination.  It is also the most difficult of the three aspects to measure, it’s intangible and for many it is assumed but difficult to describe.

This increased emphasis comes at the right time. I would argue that many believe they know right from wrong, and are aware they are subject to a professional code - so job done? Not quite. 

The management of ethics in projects is increasingly important for a number of reasons. First, an increasing public spotlight. There is an increasing public intolerance of corporate misdeeds, whether perceived or actual. Regulatory and legal mechanisms like the UK Bribery Act or whistleblowing have become more prevalent. What is acceptable or not acceptable as society norms continues to evolve. Increasingly projects are global in nature and attempt to span different norms of behaviour, creating more complex dilemmas.   All these trends point to ethical conduct becoming more challenging as an issue.

This provides a major challenge to any project manager who needs think about an ethical approach to a project as an asset to be managed not simply a project to be delivered on time, on budget. 

You only need to look around at other industries to see ethical or moral problems and conflicts of interest abounding. Project managers operate across a variety of sectors and are increasingly going have to deal with ethical dilemmas on issues with shades of grey, which require professional judgement and the active management of an issue. It is no longer enough just to do the right thing.

This Chartered paper looks at different aspects of ethical behaviour and hopefully can be part of the process for individuals, and the profession as a whole, to engage and understand better the increasing importance of ethics an integrity. This is the starting point for a debate about how the APM can develop ethical support and frameworks beyond the Code itself.

We are grateful to the Institute of Business Ethics – who have done such pioneering work in this field – who have provided much of the content for this paper. 

Alistair Godbold

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