1 September 2008

Project management ethics

Here is a real scenario that you could face.  How would you handle it?

You've won a contract to do a multi-million dollar project for a US DoD agency.

Your team is a team of excellent project and software professionals who have worked together for several years and consistently beaten the odds delivering high value solutions on or very close to budget and planned times.

You are based in Australia (or Canada, France, Germany, Brazil...) and in your country it is illegal to discriminate against staff based on their race.  Racial discrimination is anathema to you anyway, as you are looking for the best and brightest and your experience is that race has nothing to do with talent or motivation.

So you wouldn't think for a moment of getting rid of Johnny Tran, you ace security expert, born in Vietnam, but who moved to your city at age 2.  Or Sara Kahn, an excellent data analyst who moved here six years ago as a refugee from war ravaged Afghanistan.

But now you have a contract that requires you do not employ people born in certain countries due to US security concerns.

What do you do?  Let Sara and Johnny go?  Decline the contract?  Break the law?

The answer for some agencies in Australia has been to apply for exceptions to the law.  Is this an ethical response?

(I guess this is the industry that builds killing and maiming devices in the name of making the world a safer place.)

So project people.  What would you do?

Inspiration for this post was Background Briefing at abc.net.au


  1. Great question Craig! I have some limited experience with this, and you inspired me to respond to this with my own post at The Project Management Student.

    Here is a direct link on The Project Management Student to A Question of Ethics in project management.

    Josh Nankivel
    The Art of Project Management

  2. Craig,

    its an interesting question and similar to one that I face.

    In the world of classified information, mostly defense department work, there are a whole series of positions that mandate certain security clearances. If you can't meet them you can't compete for the jobs/contracts/etc. That is just a fact of life.

    Actually, for most DoD/Space Command/etc. opportunities, you have to be cleared before you even get the opportunity to bid in the contract. That whole area is a very closed industry. I have considered it, but friends who know the area better suggest partnering with a firm which already has established lines. Those contracts frequently incur so much overheard that if you don't know what you're doing, you'll bankrupt your company.

    They are huge dollar contracts that pay out for a very long time, but you better know what you're doing because government contracts are not like other contracts.

    As my mother always said, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

  3. Anonymous12:41 am

    It is the American constitution that says that "all men are created equal" but still the U.S. people think that some people are "more equal" than the others. I really hate their hypocrisy.

    To answer your question: I would violate the contract - I would keep my people "under cover", i.e. without telling my client about them.

    I accept suchcontract clauses as ethical so I don't think a response like this is unethical.

  4. Anonymous12:43 am

    I made some mistake with my last sentence. I do not accept such clauses as ethical.

  5. While I may agree that ITAR and other nationalist regulations can and sometimes do go too far, I disagree with your approach Mike. Violating the contract in that way is highly unethical.

    Two wrongs don't make a right. If the guidelines impose constraints you are not able or willing to comply with, the ethical decision is to not bid on the contract.

    Josh Nankivel
    Project Management Student
    The Art of Project Management

  6. Anonymous5:06 am

    Although a difficult situation I think this is a very common theme.

    When you are working on Government contracts of any kind the client (or agency) can ask for all team members to have a certain security clearance level. This could effectively exclude people from certain countries depending on the security clearance regulations in your particular country.

    Although not in the least full proof (refer to all the cases of double agents during the cold war) this is a mechanism that is designed to minimise the RISK of leaks on a sensitive government contract. I do not think the intention is to discriminate.

    I agree with Josh that the best thing you can do is to support the team members that may be excluded from a particular contract by deploying them onto something else within the organisation.

  7. Anonymous4:16 am

    Craig and all.
    If the contract is subject to ITAR or if it is subject to classified work, you choice is simple. Follow the contract. This is not an area that i open to interpretation - no matter the illogical aspects of ITAR.
    We've had Canadian supplies on our program that had to be locked down in another building.
    When clearance discussions come up, the firms Security Officer can answer any contractual questions. Or the Defense security Service.
    This is not an area where gray exists - it's black or white. This is an issue beyond the ethics, one of government contracting.

  8. I agree with you Glen, although my assumption was that the contract had not even been bid yet.

    The question may have been whether or not to bid at all, and if you did, how to take care of your staff AND comply with ITAR regulations.

    Josh Nankivel
    The Art of Project Management

  9. Anonymous12:23 pm

    Josh - that's correct. Do you bid? How do you manage yoru staff.

    I would definitely not advocate signing up to a contract and then breaching it.

    But ITAR does present a connundrum for the people in the sceanrio I explained.


  10. Anonymous2:03 am

    "Break the law?" What's interesting is what law is being broken?

    The one where it's against the law to hire based on race...

    Basically the gov't is effectively saying you have to break it's own laws if you want the deal.

    If your business needs the deal in order to survive, then not having the deal results in layoffs anyways... So Sara and Johnny are doomed either way.

    Personally I'd try to find another contract if possible. A gig is a gig...but building a cohesive team that delivers takes years to do. Finding quality top notch candidates is also very challenging and time consuming. So from a business perspective it's costly to give that up.

    The question is it more costly than the cost of that gig? Depends what other gigs you may have in the pipeline....

  11. There are several issues at play here. First, in US government contracting, the issue is what country you are a citizen of. Someone who was born in a country and then emigrated does not automatically get rejected for a clearance.

    If the citizenship is Australia, then they would do a background check and find out about family members from "unfriendly" nations. This could be mitigated during the background check process. Keep in mind, mitigation is entirely up to the investigator and quite frankly can be somewhat whimsical.

    I say, in this case go for the exception. It's your best bet and will save you from lawsuits later. You meet your ethical obligation to the client and your people and still have the possibility of getting the contract.

  12. Anonymous10:15 pm

    I wouldn't let people go, but I think it isn't the kind of question PM or team manager would get. If you talk about multi-million dollar contract those decisions will be made at the top of the organization and PM/team manager will have to accept them and announce them to Johnny and Sara.

    Sorry, life is brutal and big organizaions don't care much about people.

    Fortunately, chances aren't high we'll face the decistion.

  13. Anonymous8:17 am

    This is about business strategy as well as ethics, isn't it?

    If the USDD is a strategic customer for you, then your people strategy has to reflect that. ("If we offer you this job, you should be aware that we are a USDD contractor which means you wouldn't be able to work on all assignments; we would do our best to ensure that you had non-defence work to work on though").

    It seems to me that whether or not you can say that at interview is likely to be a good indicator of your actual views of the USDD.

    If your decision to bid for the USDD contract is opportunistic then you've brought the problem on yourself.


  14. Ben, Bruce, others

    Good comment - the decision sits above the project manager.

    But as the readers here are project managers, BAs and the like e still have to make decicions.

    Just because the boss says it is okay doesn't make it okay for us.

    The best and brightest in our profession can always walk away and find another job.

    Should we act as leaders or should we thow up the defense of "it's my job."

  15. Anonymous5:20 am

    Ah, I assumed that you were a principal and able to call some strategic shots.

    If the questions are "would you give up your job for your friend?" and "would you give up your job for your principles?" then I'd love to say yes I would.

    In the past I've avoided working with two consultancies run by people whose ethics I've disagreed with. So in the medium term it's a no brainer - I'd leave, very probably saying why.

    In the short-term though...? well it would depend on the size of my savings, the strength of my friendship, the impact on my colleagues and the bouyancy of the jobs market. The old hierarchy of needs is ruthless, isn't it?

    Cool question though. Got any more dilemmas? It's a game I like playing!


  16. Anonymous6:37 am

    Ah! A trick question!

    What you should do is fire the idiot(s) that approved and submitted a proposal without making sure that your company could deliver the work and comply with the rules.

  17. Austin7:16 am

    If the contract has already been awarded, then there is an issue with the project proposal team, since they did truly follow all of the project tender contraints, namely the personnel issue.

    I have done a government project whereby each member of our project team had to be individually certified for security clearance by Homeland security.

    The original premise that Johnny and Sara are the two team members that do not meet security criteria because of country of birth. However, you have to bear in mind, that the government does have their security concerns, one of which is place of birth. Others concerns can arise for countries visited, previous job placements, people they associate with, family and extended family, etc. Thus you may find that others, may also not be capable of getting security clearance for your project.

    You should apply for an exception for Johnny & Sara. The granting of such an exception may not be extended to you, since the tender documents stated otherwise, and the contract was issued based on that.

    "Hiding" the affected personnel inside the project team, will be a breach of ethics on your part.

    The other option would be to reassign the affected personnel to another project, since it would not be the PM's final decision to determine whom the government may or may not deem worthy.

  18. Michael Voice5:41 pm

    I believe this is an excellent challenge to our personal views and ethics within our own beliefs. The question is, how can we make the two problems harmonise, and I believe the answer is this:

    Johnny and Sara work for our company, and within the boundaries of the country we live in there is no problem. For this situation and contract there are new constraints imposed, and we must ethically abide by these constraints, whether we like them or not.

    So, Johnny and Sara would continue working for our company, there is no reason they should not. However, they may not work on this particlar project unless a dispensation may be granted for them.

    Hence, I would seek such dispensation that would allow me to use them, giving the details and reasons why they should not be discluded, to the client. I would also look to be able to commence and run the project without them should such dispensation not be granted, and include them on the project, if or when either of them may be granted clearance to work it.

    Hence, seek clearance, but always abide by the rules imposed. Find a way past these rules, but do not break them, as this is completely unethical and when discovered, would bring dishonour and embarrassment at the very least to the company. Note, I say 'when discovered', not 'if discovered'.

    Our ethics must be governed by rules, therefore we must not break rules that apply to the project situation we find ourselves managing.

    Different countries, different rules. If the project is based in Kuwait, it is Kuwaits rules that take precedence over our own countries or companies rules. But always we must seek clearence, especially from our own company if any rules we find ourselves under are questionable, and most importantly, we must declare any difficult situation like this , and give the reasons for our decisions on how to handle it. Be open with reasons, it keeps oneself clear from being accused of an unethical stance, as hiding behind secrecy for decisions made, makes such decisions unethical.


    Michael Voice