Ethics and Moral Leadership in Project Management

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In all aspects of an organization and business, ethics plays a significant role. As companies are undertaking increasing number of projects to build new products and services to attract and satisfy their customers, it is important that these projects are managed and executed not only effec


Ethics is defined as system of moral principles that affects our decisions and how we live our lives. They tell us what is good for individuals and society. Being ethical means making the right decisions, behaving and conducting activities morally. Ethics is an important part of our life. In business, ethics plays a vital role as it helps in attracting customers, satisfying their demands thus boosting sales and profits of an organization. It makes employees want to continue working in an organization and increases their productivity. Following business ethics ensures good reputation for your organization and provides benefits to all the people who are involved or a part of the organization. Good ethics is good business.


Ethics in Project Management:

Ethics are important at all organizational aspects. Leaders are known to be influencers and decision makers. It is a necessity for all organizations to have their own code of ethics and conduct and all employees should be trained about them and made to follow them. All the leaders of any organization have a duty of ensuring that their employees follow ethics actively in the workplace. In the past, organizational leaders have tended to make non-ethical decisions based on dishonesty, mistrust like plagiarism or copying ideas for success and monetary benefits. This has led to many corporate ethical scandals which has led to an increased awareness regarding importance of ethics in business. This has created the need for practicing moral leadership where leaders make decisions that are based on moral values and are ethical.

Companies have their own goals, objectives, strategies, vision and mission which are primarily achieved by undertaking and executing projects. Essentially, a company’s business runs through projects. It is due to this reason, why ethics also plays a huge role in the domain of Project Management and it is the Project Manager’s responsibility to make sure that all their projects are managed and executed not only efficiently but also ethically. Project Manager is a leader of the project team and has the power of deciding how the project will proceed and how the project team acts. If a Project Manager is ethical, then she or he influences the project team to work ethically and ensures that the work done under the project is performed ethically.


Project Management Institute:

Project Management Institute (PMI) is world’s leading project management organization. All professional and aspiring project managers are members of PMI. PMI determines project management standards, hosts conferences, seminars and networking events, provides accreditation in project management and provides services in education and research. PMI volunteers have created industry standards such as: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). PMI members have come up with 4 values defined as PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct which all Project Managers and PMI members must follow.

PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct:

PMI has outlined 4 values for ethical conduct in project management profession:

  1. Honesty: Be truthful in your communication and conduct
  2. Responsibility: Take ownership of your decisions and actions that you make or fail to make and the consequences resulted from them
  3. Respect: Show admiration to yourself, others and resources like people, money, reputation etc. that are entrusted to you.
  4. Fairness: Decisions and actions should be impartial and one’s conduct must be devoid of favouritism, self-interest and prejudice


Ethical Dilemmas:

An organization that follows a code of ethics and conduct always operates better where every employee actively follows all ethics that help in making right decisions resulting in better products, services and increased client and customer satisfaction. The code of ethics is subjective to an organization and is not fixed. When organizations don’t follow ethics and make compromises, they lack professionalism. By practicing good ethics, organization’s productivity is maximum and employee morale is boosted.

Often people end up making non-ethical decisions or conducting non-ethical activities due to the following 4 causes:

  1. Misinterpreting data for personal gains: People are tempted to do so for personal benefits - monetary or otherwise.
  2. Conflict between personal values and business ethics: Ethics are based on our values and principles and they differ between individuals and organizations. Not all employees might agree with their organization’s ethics or consider them important and thus end up going against them.
  3. Disrespecting colleagues due to different cultural beliefs: With globalization, people across the world from different cultural background end up working together. Our culture drives our beliefs, values and principles that in turn, drives our ethics and morals. If a colleague’s belief differs from his/her co-worker’s belief, then it leads to conflicts.
  4. Unprofessional behavior that violates the code of conduct: Any individual or any organization that violates ethical code promotes unprofessionalism.


Ethical Decision-Making Framework:

With common ethical violations, there is a need for a framework or a guide for helping leaders and others to make the right ethical decisions. To make ethical decisions, one needs to be trained to identify an ethical issue and analyse its ethical aspects. Globalization has resulted in collision of beliefs, values and culture leading to increased ethical conflicts and having a framework makes it easier to deal with an ethical issue. Every organization should have such a framework for its employees that will help them to follow ethics and solve ethical dilemmas at workplace. “If practiced regularly, it becomes a habit that leads to ethical behaviour and moral leadership. While making decisions, leaders need to consider the organizational code, the professional code of ethics, and personal values.” (Raghupathy, 2011)

In his paper, Raghupathy has outlined the steps in the framework. The framework guides us to analyse the problem and learn different insights and perspectives for making the right decisions. Following are the steps in his framework:

Figure 1: Ethical Decision-Making Framework


When faced with an issue, by using a framework such as the one outlined in Figure 2 will prove helpful.

  1. The first step is to recognize and understand that the issue is an ethical one
  2. Collect all facts and perform an analysis on it to help come up with solutions
  3. Evaluate all alternative options to see if they are ethical and moral and then make a decision
  4. Execute the decision ethically and morally using code of ethics and professional conduct as per PMI and your own organization
  5. Monitor it to see its outcome. If the outcome suggests it has not been ethically executed or is not solving the issue as desired, then rectify it by executing an alternative option that suits best or repeat the steps.

It is also better to document the issue with what worked well and what didn’t to guide others in such similar situations.


Sample of an Ethical Issue:

Let’s take a sample case of an ethical issue in the domain of project management. Ms. Elliot, an owner of a project management consulting firm in England did a web search of similar project management consulting firms and found a website in Canada that had same project management offerings as her firm (verbatim) and its owner Mr. Doe had her same bio. On reviewing her emails, she found that 2 years earlier, she had met Mr. Doe at a PMI Global Congress and corresponded with him via email where she had shared this information that Mr. Doe has used on his website with essentially the same wording.

She contacted him via an email outlining this issue, but Mr. Doe claimed that he had not done anything wrong and that all the work outlined on his website is his work. She sent another email which showed the comparison between the information she had shared in her email and the information present on Doe’s website. For two weeks, she got no reply following which she sent him a letter showing the same comparison. For a month, she did not get any response. She learnt that Mr. Doe is also a certified PMP and she decided to file a PMI Ethics complaint. He did not give respect for her intellectual property and when confronted was not honest and claimed the material was his.

In this case, Mr. Doe had violated two of PMI’s code of ethics: Honesty and Respect.

Figure 2: Summary of the Ethical Issue


Let’s analyse the actions taken by both project managers.

Strengths of the actions taken by Ms. Elliot:

  • Elliot gave Mr. Doe a chance to recognize and alter his mistake by politely emailing him instead of directly informing PMI.
  • She gave him sufficient time to respond and was patient.
  • She did not disrespect his image in the process and was courteous.
  • She used proof of their conversation while confronting and provided proper comparisons that justifies her confrontation.

Issues in the actions taken by Mr. Doe:

  • Doe violated PMI’s code of ethics despite being a PMI member
  • His actions displayed lack of professional ethics and conduct
  • As the copied information is used on his firm’s public website, the consequences of his actions also impact his firm’s brand and reputation.
  • He has set a bad example for his employees, being their leader.


Alternate Strategy to Ms. Elliot’s Actions:

Firstly, Ms. Elliot should not have shared such sensitive information regarding her firm’s offerings to anyone. The information intended for public most likely will be available on her own website which she could have told Mr. Doe to check out. Also, on her website, and in her emails, the information should be protected by letting the reader know regarding its ownership or copyright. Despite this if someone still steals her information, as in the case of Mr. Doe, she should try to also include the significance of ethics in project management, how strictly PMI values ethics to make him understand his mistake during their correspondence.

On not receiving any responses, she could have also sent him a warning stating how she intends to inform PMI about this situation and how that could hurt his and his firm’s reputation leading to severe losses in his business in the future. By doing so, she could have made him realize his mistake and get him to rectify it or make him feel obligated to do so.  Through her communication, using the right words, she could have made him take her seriously and try to make him fix it.


Strengths and Risks of the Alternate Strategy:

Before executing any strategy, it needs to be analyzed. What are the possible outcomes – positive and negative, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this strategy, etc. After breaking down on the alternate strategy mentioned above, following are the strengths and risks associated with it:


  • He realizes his mistake and apologizes
  • He removes the stolen information from his website
  • They can sign a legal agreement where he pays her some fees as a compensation for stealing her intellectual property (Royalty Agreement)


  • He might block her emails
  • He can file a complaint against her under harassment

The strengths of the alternate strategy outweigh the risks. If he does block any communication with her, she can file a complaint with PMI under Ethics and PMI will take the necessary actions to resolve the issue and ensure that Mr. Doe is punished appropriately and that he corrects his wrongdoing. Furthermore, if he files a complaint against her for harassment, she can use the correspondence between her and Mr. Doe and any responses she received from PMI as proof of how he is responsible for committing a crime and that she is merely trying to make him understand his errors and rectify them.


Proactive Actions to Take:

Following are some of the fundamental steps an organization can take to ensure ethics are followed by their employees and to prevent an ethical situation, similar to the one above, from occurring:

  • Introduce an Ethics policy in organizational policy (include PMI Code of Ethics for Project Management Office (PMO))
  • Conduct Ethics Workshop for all employees
  • Have increased transparency between Project Managers, Business Leaders and project teams regarding ethics in their work
  • Encourage employees to monitor oneself and other’s actions in terms of ethics and to report if Ethics Policy is violated.
  • Have a system or method for employees to easily report ethical violations, make it anonymous to make the employee feel safe from any retaliation
  • Introduce Ethics Awards or Rewards for employees to motivate them to follow ethics



Following ethics is critical in all aspects of life: personal and professional. Being ethical is beneficial in many ways to everyone individually and on a societal and organization level. By practicing ethics, organizations can make its employees feel happy with the workplace, boost their morale and increase their loyalty. They can easily attract new clients and customers with their honest and ethical behavior and products which will raise their sales and profits considerably.

In Project Management, it is the Project Manager’s responsibility to manage projects effectively and ethically as projects are primary method of organizations achieving their goals and objectives and creating new products and services. If the project for building a new product was managed and executed with non-ethical decisions and actions, then the product will fail to impress and attract customers making the project a huge failure and a great loss in terms of time, project budget and resources. Customers, clients, employees appreciate honest and ethical practices. A Project Manager must abide by the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: Honesty, Respect, Fairness and Responsibility. Failure to do so, will result in severe repercussions from the PMI as they take ethics seriously.



  1. Raghupathy, S. (2011). Ethics and moral leadership in project management. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2011—North America, Dallas, TX. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
  2. org.(n.d.) Sample ethics Case- Retrieved from
  3. org.(n.d.). Code of Ethics Professional Conduct. Retrieved from