Project Leaders as Ethical Role Models

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By Peter Tarhanidis            

This month’s theme at is ethics.  Project leaders are in a great position to be role models of ethical behavior. They can apply a system of values to drive the whole team’s ethical behavior.

First: What is ethics, exactly? It’s a branch of knowledge exploring the tension between the values one holds and how one acts in terms of right or wrong. This tension creates a complex system of moral principles that a particular group follows, which defines its culture. The complexity stems from how much value each person places on his or her principles, which can lead to conflict with other individuals.

Professional ethics can come from three sources:

  1. Your organization. It can share its values and conduct compliance training on acceptable company policy.
  2. Regulated industries. These have defined ethical standards to certify organizations.
  3. Certifying organizations. These expect certified individuals to comply with the certifying group’s ethical standards.

In project management, project leaders have a great opportunity to be seen as setting ethical leadership in an organization. Those project leaders who can align an organization’s values and integrate PMI’s ethics into each project will increase the team’s ethical behavior. 

PMI defines ethics as the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior. The values include honesty, responsibility, respect and fairness.

For example, a project leader who uses the PMI® Code of Ethics to increase a team’s ethical behavior might:

  • Create an environment that reviews ethical standards with the project team
  • Consider that some individuals bring different systems of moral values that project leaders may need to navigate if they conflict with their own ethics. Conflicting values can include professional organizations’ values as well as financial, legislative, religious, cultural and other values.
  • Communicate to the team the approach to be taken to resolve ethical dilemmas.

Please share any other ideas for elevating the ethical standards of project leaders and teams, and/or your own experiences!

Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: February 22, 2016 09:45 AM | Permalink

Comments (22)

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Interesting and Sensitive Subject !

I worked for many years for an international company on large jobs and we had our own code of ethics and anti-corruption system because ethics are somehow related to corruption - If ethics were not followed, corruption will occupy the projects.

These corruption issues are of high possibility to occur everywhere. In my previous company,we used to have an anti-corruption and ethics systems, campaigns, training and yet, it used to happen all the time but on a smaller level because there was a certain level of control. The only thing you can do besides having an anti-corruption system is to monitor and control vigilantly. The bigger the organization, the higher is the tendency of corruption occurrence and the higher are the required control measures because if it was not controlled, it could bring the project down in many ways.

Generally speaking, I personally find it very useful to have a plan within the project management plan called: Ethics & Anti-Corruption Management where a team of 1 or 2 members would be in charge of it and their sole responsibility is to monitor and control throughout the project lifecycle - I do not prefer using tools, human interaction and observation is the best way to deal with such crucial issues and a regular audit from PMO.

Rami great suggestion!

Ethics is considered as an individual behavior. Creating a process for project teams is a great way to create a transparent approach.

Thank You


Thank You Peter - Exactly, I agree with that because a transparent approach will definitely increase the awareness and abidance to the ethics and decrease corruption.

In addition to Peter’s post and Rami’s comment, there are two thoughts that come to my mind:

1. Although project leaders are in a highly exposed position for ethical behavior, it is important to remember that ethics is critical for all team members or employees. This means, it has to be treated and considered on all levels of an organization, and education on this topic has to go way beyond a Code of Ethics.

2. Corruption is the most frequently used subject to be associated with unethical behavior, because it is so obviously wrong and, by definition, illegal. But we must not forget that being ethical is not just doing nothing illegal. If we look at the four basic values (responsibility, respect, fairness and honesty) of the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, one can see that they require a positive attitude in relation to the co-workers, the organization, the clients, and the society in general.

Totally agree with you Peter and specifically your second comment - This is why I mentioned in my comment that there should be training, campaigns so it increases awareness on all levels and everybody know what exactly an ethical behaviour is because many people think (like you've mentioned) that it is only doing nothing illegal but in fact it extends beyond this.

Thanks for highlighting this valuable issues Peter.

Peter good points as well. Project Managers may be good models or exemplify an archetype of ethical behavior yet as you and Rami state it must permeate through the project team.

Both of you have provided good approaches on how to develop best practices in this area.

Thank you both for the continued dialogue I am sure others will find this very engaging!


You are most welcome Peter - It is my pleasure to always contribute and engage with such great discussions.

Ethics, the 600 pound gorilla in the room. Ethics discussions always seem to discuss "keeping the horse in the barn" by training into staff of the importance of ethics but organizational inertia across the years seems to have defeated well meaning efforts to improve ethics in projects, programs, portfolios, etc. when it comes to ethics. How is that possible? Ethics begins in people. In my humble but ignorant opinion, processes and procedures are tools of those who run the organization and not merely "best practice". How about some examples from my 40+ years in IT. One boss had a bad alcohol problem but he was the SME to correct system abends. Was it ethical for me to call him in knowing he would drive drunk to the office? Another boss was having an affair. How was I to question project needs when I was at odds with the person with which they were having the affair? An employee asked me what time they were to come in the next day when I fully knew the person was being laid off later that same day. What was I to do when my boss told me, directly, to implement a process I knew was not entirely on the straight and narrow. When I escalated to a corporate officer they said, "You know" and did nothing. There are a number of occasions where management were involved in something where they could have been elsewhere.Nothing illegal about it but not ethical. How about a company wide celebration of a profitable year when I knew that was only possible due to early receipt of monies supposed to be for the next year? (It was corrected a week after the celebration but no disclosure was made to the company.) How about being told by a corporate officer to keep a check ($1MM) for them then they told the vendor wanting payment that it had left their desk? How about a manager telling me to open a new source module, add a module name and save it so they could state in the weeks status that "development has begun"? Other examples I could provide but what''''s the point? The processes and training provided to staff are honorable and are designed to provide a good base for ethical decisions and practices. Just remember that there are people who exist to make the rules work for their benefit and theirs alone.

thank you very much for sharing your experiences and the dilemmas you have lived. They are excellent examples for discussion about ethics in day-to-day situations. They demonstrate impressively the complexity of ethics, because hardly ever one situation is the same as another one, but they demonstrate as well, that even a good Code of Ethics is not enough to guide people’s decisions. We need also tools and techniques that make people reflect about ethical dilemmas before turn up and then often require a very quick decision.
An finally, I think that ethical behavior is related to basic values that go much beyond what you can possibly describe in a code of ethics; they are related to a cultural heritage, general education, family and social values, among others.


Kudos to providing that level of examples. Clearly we are all confronted daily as Peter P. mentions regarding these challenges. The key point may be how we respond? Rami brought up a good point on projects to introduce an ethical management plan at the start of initiating a project. Assigning an ethical manager to oversee that role and plan to ensure transparency.

What other actions do you think one should consider to create a process and transparent approach to contending with ethical dilemmas?

Thank you for your contributions to the post and to the profession!

In reply to Peter I want to express hope that to all PMs that ethics, though seemingly situation driven, will be only as ethical as you make them. I've admired the mindset of some of management from India and Japan. In my description, which I apologize beforehand for sweeping generalization, the management of those companies in those countries believe that the image of their company and the ethics demonstrated in their work are of real importance. I commend them. PMs need to take a deep long look in the mirror and see if they pass muster in the ethics test. Are you doing the right thing, the best thing rather than just what is expected? Are you having those tough conversations rather than surrender to the convenient? Without PMs taking a stand for ethics, however you define it, means the firms you support may not be getting the best product. Not creating an environment of ethical methods and processes means you continue to propagate another generation of ethic-less workers who do whatever it takes to get ahead. I've been thrown under the bus so often that my middle name is now 11R 22.5H (common bus tire size) I have been stabbed in the back enough to know that unless you champion ethics in your work then it simply will not get done.


I've worked with Japanese for years and I've written a blog about the Japanese approach to project management (Check it out if you'de like: Japanese Approach to Project Management ) - I totally agree with you that they have an exceptional mindset and I've learned a lot from them.

Having an ethics and anti-corruption system is a must in organizations especially large and international ones as they have large different projects, they are multi-cultural, and so on. It proved success or at least minimized unethical and corruption a lot.

I personally believe that besides having Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Management as an additional Knowledge Area, we should add Ethics and Anti-Corruption as one more Knowledge Area and both of them should have a management plan included within the Project Management Plan like every other plans but tailored to suit the size, type and nature of the project.

I do not want to deviate from the subject but I've e-mailed PMI to add HSE Management as a new knowledge area and volunteered to contribute in writing this chapter but so far no feedback as they might be busy as I understand there are lots of priorities but what I am trying to say is that management is a wide subject and we always should work on including and adding more knowledge areas or processes as necessary in order to cope with the changing environment and world.

Thanks for the article and comments, I personally agree with them.
I addition to them some considerations:
- ethics and legality are surely joined but they are not the same concept: we can comply with lows acting against our principles (an example: racial laws in Germany and Italy during the second world war)
- unethical behavior could be a consequence of a poor analysis of the situation or scenario (a poor risk management process application can have unethical consequences?)
- unethical behavior is an important cost if we consider it below a long term perspective (lost of credibility, legal consequences etc.)
- unethical behavior reduce the effectiveness of teams (no correct communication, time spent to "cover" unethical actions etc.)
- companies should act creating a common ethical culture in the organization. In this case there are different approach that should be included in a "ethical strategy" (some examples: ethics code creation - actions to learn that unethical behavior is a cost - creation of process which are focused in avoiding unethical behavior etc.)
All action we can implement to improve ethical behavior should be base in the consideration that, at least, ethical behavior is based on personal will.

Fosco great points! I especially like the last point on personal will.

Thank you


Great topic, my experience with ethical standards of project leaders and teams, have been not to follow the same trend as everybody is following... if you look to right or left, you might be deceived with an unethical distraction.

George thanks ! Good point on the trend setting and keeping a 360.

Good luck!


.... nice!

I have similar experience as Harold told. When I was working as a PM in big IT company (3 letters), I had to lead with unethical facts. The more bigger the project, the most corruption within, special when such project were executed for the Government. I've seen corruptions in bids, with acquisition, with third parties in the project team, and of course with payments (which includes of course payola).
Could you tell me how had to deal with this dilemma ? My customer (Government), my organisation (big IT Companies) they know about it. The only ethical way was quit to my job w/o any complaint because of retaliation. Since then I've worked as an independent professional.

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