When we’re dealing with concepts of ethics we sometimes come to the realization that issues are often shades of gray as opposed to black and white.  There are certainly situations where an issue is found to be illegal, imoral, and unethical (professionally speaking).  When the these perspectives align, the decision that we have to make becomes easy.

Where things get a bit more complex is when we find that a point of view related to an issue is unethical but from another point of view it is not.  I’ve discussed in previous articles how the differences sometimes are driven by cultural context in terms of the region of the world or even differences from one organization to the other.

However, there is another matter that also needs to be taken into consideration and that is the type of professionals that an issue applies for.  Consider the fact that the issue of confidentiality only applies to certain professions but not others.  This is a perfect example where breaching confidence in one profession is considered unethical while in another is considered appropriate.

Even within the same profession though sometimes we have to keep in mind that depending on the role that an individual plays or the office they hold, that might dictate the code of conduct that they must abide by.  For example, someone of the PMI Board of Directors by virtue of their PMI membership is automatically bound by the PMI ethics code.  However, in addition to this code, this Board member is also bound by the PMI Board’s code of conduct.  In this specific case, the Board code directs specific behavior so as to ensure that the member abides by certain fiduciary responsibilities along with the avoidance of conflict of interest.  Typically, the average PMI member does not need to worry about this because they are not a fiduciary of the organization.

When it comes to these codes of conduct that apply to specific populations within a profession, often the way that the code is defined depends on organizational norms, regional culture, and other variables that are specific to the situation.  Let me illustrate with an example I heard about from a non-profit organization (not PMI).  This particular organization was in need of training for their staff as part of organizational development.  Shortly after the Board deliberation and decision to budget for this activity, a Board member suggested that their sibling’s company is able to offer the needed training program for a fair fee. After some discussion, the Board agreed to invite the Board member’s sibling’s company to hold the training activities.

Now, if we examine the generic facts of the situation, some may be lead to argue that the decision of the Board was inappropriate. In some instances it may have been illegal.  However, when we get to the detail of the situation, the inappropriateness of the Board’s action can come in many flavors.  Much of this is driven by how strict the Board’s philosophy is as related to contracting.

In some organizations, it is simply inappropriate for any member (or a member of their family) to do business with the organization.  Other organizations on the other hand may specify that the Officer should recuse themselves from discussions that might bring them or their family members certain benefits.  Yet other organizations may specify that as long as there is an open bidding process with multiple bidders, awarding the Board member’s family a contract is not inappropriate.

The challenge that we have to understand here is that there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer to this.  If we want a stringent code of conduct we would expect that the organization would simply disallow any Board member to conduct business with the organization no matter the circumstances.

In the example I was referring to, it turned out that the Board was acting irresponsibly for several reasons.

  1. The Board member’s sibling’s company overcharged the organization.  Since there was no bidding process or competitors the Board had to take their word on the price being competitive.
  2. The Board did not conduct any due diligence activities to learn about what it took to hold the training.
  3. The Board member was involved in the discussion and in fact was advocating for the contract with their sibling’s company.  As such other Board members did not feel comfortable speaking against the action.

Interestingly enough the situation ended up becoming much worse when the project encountered budget over-runs and delays. The Board not only acted irresponsibly but also put its relationship with stakeholders at risk.

My own rule of thumb when it comes to these situations is to err on the side of caution.  In many instances the perception is as important as reality.  Frankly I’d rather avoid the situation all together rather than build a plan to refute claims of impropriety.  If something “feels” wrong, then its worth putting things on hold to discuss and come to a conclusion that is in the best interest of stakeholders while honoring the code of conduct of the organization.