Ethical Dilemmas

May 4, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

There have been a couple of times in my career where I have encountered people that are not willing to take on a position because they perceived a collision with their own value system. Indeed, there have been times when I have stepped away from an otherwise lucrative gig because it involved something that didn’t quite sit right with me. It is worthwhile to sit down periodically and visit our boundaries, to understand what we will and won’t do, to explore what ethics means to each of us. For me, this is the time for some of that reflection.

As a start, given that I am a PMP, I thought I would revisit the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct from the PMI. This is a 5-page description of ‘expectations we have of ourselves and our fellow practitioners’, based on four values deemed important based on a survey of the community: responsibility, respect, fairness and honesty. I don’t recall being part of that survey, but that’s a bit out of context here.

From these values come a set of mandatory conduct, as well as aspirational conduct, that is all quite straightforward and reasonable. I have no conflict with anything stated in these pages, though I have known people that didn’t necessarily live up to these standards (fortunately, they are not members of the PMI, or I would have been bound to turn them in…).

The problem I have with this code of ethics, though, is that the definition of ethics that it sets out to provide a code for is not at all clear. For all of the identified expectations within the code, it appears that ‘ethics’ is limited to adherence to these stated expectations (that’s the best they do for a definition), which is far from complete. There is a stated responsibility for reporting illegal or unethical practices, but while what is illegal has some pretty clear boundaries defined elsewhere, what is unethical has some gaps you could drive a truck through.

In constraining the code to four popular values, we’ve only covered a subset of the values that some would consider critical. This is not to say that the PMI needs to expand their Code, though it might make sense to express its incompleteness. What it does mean that we as individuals and we as business should sit down and consider these other values, to stake out a broader code of ethics that we can use to guide our actions.

Do you feel it would be inappropriate to work in the defense industry? What about online gaming, or in a casino? How about working for a company that doesn’t have a reasonably stated policy to protect the environment? Nuclear power or the petroleum industry? Would you work in a sweatshop? Sell lottery tickets and cigarettes? Deliver pizza for a place that advertises ’30 minutes or it’s free’? These are all legal (even working in a sweatshop, thanks to the draconian labour laws for tech workers in this province…), so there is no clear delineation from the law to guide us. Myriad shades of gray.

Ethics is a set of moral principles that drive us as individuals, and if we take the time to understand our own position, we can then decide if we are aligned with those around us or the businesses we work for. A common standard such as the PMI’s serves as a reasonable starting point for the masses, but we should all decide what we are willing to do or not do based on alignment with our own values and principles.

This can be a complex undertaking, as most of use fall somewhere in the middle of the puritan to hedonistic continuum, and we are often relatively loose in some dimensions while being relatively rigorous in others. If we don’t take the time to ask ourselves where we stand, though, we are almost certain to run into situations where our principles collide with those around us, and the resulting ethical dilemma can be a difficult situation to work through. – JB

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