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Five Ethical Tips for Project Managers

Let’s consider the role ethics plays in the world of project management. Everything from day-to-day interactions and activities to overall project goals are touched by ethical guidelines in some manner. With a great role comes great responsibility, and project managers are held to high standards as they are the people who make decisions for and act on behalf of stakeholders, organizations, and employees.

No one knows better than a seasoned project manager that there are many ethical lines that one may get close to in project management. The bigger the project, the more pressure to meet cost and time deadlines, and unfortunately, the more opportunities for ethical compromise. Of course, you want to complete your project on time and on budget, and so, you will, inevitably, face some ethical issues along the way. Here are a few possible scenarios:

  • Being asked to accept kickbacks and favors in order to choose a particular vendor over competitors
  • Making hiring choices based on nepotism or bribery, rather than who is best for the job
  • Being asked to share confidential information
  • Asking staff/team members to work overtime, or do work outside of the scope of their job description

I’ve seen everything from fudging weekly activity reports to larger omissions about expenditures on budget lines usually to make things appear better than they are. However, when project managers turn a blind eye—or participate—in these questionable activities, the results can be disastrous. Missed deadlines, destroyed budgets, legal trouble, and even criminal charges can be a result of shady and unethical behavior in the workplace.

The Project Management Institute defines ethics as “making the best possible decisions concerning people, resources, and the environment.” Here are five tips for making sure you stay ethical as a project manager.


Don’t Use Assets from your Last Job

While it would be all too easy to lift the work or templates that had been created by others in your previous jobs or projects, it is ill-advised. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you do need to use your own knowledge to create something that is aligned to the values of your current organization/project. Chances are, the assets that you used in your previous job are protected with a proprietary IP. Your old supervisor or organization may have specifically outlined what you can and cannot do with their intellectual property. Even if they haven’t, it’s wiser to use your own expertise and experience to create something new and fitting for your current project.


Don’t Ask your Team Members to do Unpaid Work

Even if your resources absolutely love going to work every day, don’t ask them to do things for free. While it’s okay to ask everyone on the team to rally and do their best work in order to meet deadlines, it’s not okay to ask them to put in unpaid overtime or do something outside of the scope of their job just because you’re in a pinch.

If a staff member volunteers for something extra, sure, take them up on it, but don’t “encourage” it or pressure them to do more than they are prepared to do. They have families, bills to pay, and hobbies they like to engage in outside of work. Be respectful of your teams’ time and skills, and pay them for their loyalty, knowledge, and time.


Take Ownership of Errors

We all make mistakes. It’s often easier to be the one who forgives a mistake someone else has made than the one who has made a gaffe. We don’t want to let others down—particularly when we are in a position of leadership, but when you work in a team environment, it can be particularly disheartening when you know your mistake has led to inconveniencing others or setting a project back. As a project manager, it’s important for you to own your mistakes. A culture of accountability is one worth striving for. It’s not just your responsibility to ensure success—it’s also your responsibility to create a positive working environment where everyone feels comfortable owning up to, not only successes, but mistakes, too.


Challenge Sponsor Decisions when the Situation Calls for It

Your project sponsor trusts you to deliver work on their behalf. This means they trust your expertise, value your opinion, and want to hear your honest thoughts on how things are going. While it would be all too easy to be a “yes man” and agree with everything the project sponsor says, it would be unethical to do so if you object to something they say or suggest for the project.

It’s okay to challenge the wrong decision. Talk to your sponsor about why you feel a particular way, and be as clear as possible. They may overrule you and go with their original idea anyway, but you can’t go forward with a clear conscience unless you’ve done the best you can to advocate for the project and your team members. Never let someone who is in a more senior position intimidate you or stop you from speaking up when you have a dissenting opinion or different ideas.


Be Forthcoming with Team Members and Stakeholders Alike

Although it may be tempting to say “everything’s going great!” when your project sponsor asks—even when you’re running two weeks behind or just went over budget—it’s better to be honest. Lying by omission, or outright fibbing, will always come back to bite you. If you know you’re running behind or there’s a big risk around the corner that’s probably going to push you off course, it’s better to give everyone the complete, honest picture rather than trying to brush it under the rug. Be forthcoming with everyone from your project sponsors and stakeholders, who may not like hearing the information, to your team members.



Following ethical guidelines is a part of the job of being a project manager, even if it isn’t explicitly written into your job description. While following ethical norms may be difficult from time to time, it’s important to remember that the “softest pillow is a clear conscience.” Making the right choices and leading with a set of morals results in long-term sustainability of a project, higher team morale, and a better reputation for your organization as a whole.


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Written by Lindsay Curtis

Lindsay Curtis writes about communications, education, healthcare research, and parenting. She has extensive experience as a Project Manager, primarily in the healthcare and higher education sectors. A writer by day and a reader by night, she currently works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She also provides freelance copywriting and social media strategy services for businesses of all sizes. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org.

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