My Life Is A PMP® Ethics Question!

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Photo of Jeff Furman

Jeff Furman (credit: Michelle Wild)

This is an article by Jeff Furman, PMP®, whom I met at a PMI Congress one year, and we’ve stayed in touch since. Jeff has been a firm supporter of Social Media for Project Managers and I’m delighted to showcase some of his work here.

Q.  The sales rep for a software vendor and his lead engineer fly in to your city to demo their new product for you at your office, hoping to persuade you to buy it for your company. They know you are also evaluating a competing product, and they ask you to show them their competitor’s tool, which you currently have installed in trial mode on your desktop. They tell you that seeing the other tool would help them better tailor their software product for you. What is the best way to handle their request?

A. Show them the product, but say: “Remember, it’s confidential information.”  

B. Diplomatically tell them you can’t accommodate their request.

C. Say no, and inform your management of this incident ASAP.

D. Say no, and Tweet about the incident to the Twitterverse.

Which answer would you choose if this were an “ethics question” on a test, like the PMP® Exam? Which answer would you choose in real life? And would it be the same answer?

Let’s look at the 4 choices:

A – Is unethical, but also would be illegal if the project manager had signed a non-disclosure agreement, which they probably would have prior to the evaluation. (The best way to see why it’s unethical is to put yourself in the shoes of the competing vendor, who trusted you to trial their product).

D -  May sound silly, but many people actually do vent about vendors on the Internet nowadays, sometimes at their own legal peril.

So the choice comes down to B or C”. “B” is Just say no, where… “C” is Say no + Disclosure.

As you might have guessed, I was the project manager in this incident years ago. At the time, I had no doubt that “No” was the right answer, and in acting on “B” I thought I was doing the correct, though difficult thing, in refusing to grant the request of this vendor. And my decision was made more difficult by the fact that I had known this vendor for several years.

I was thinking at the time that others in my position might say yes, in the hope of getting a better deal from the vendor (or even just a Homer Simpson-style free lunch).

Why didn’t I inform management at the time? I thought I had handled it but years later our company wound up being burned by this sales rep.

But maybe you chose “C,” which would have been the best choice. And if I could have a “do-over” (like my hero, Bill Murray in Groundhog Day!) I would definitely have informed my senior management about the incident.

If you did choose “C”, you would have been in agreement with PMI’s*  Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, especially two clauses:

  • Clause 2.2.5 (Responsibility, Aspirational Standards): “We protect proprietary or confidential information that has been entrusted to us.”

and

  • Clause 2.3.2 (Responsibility, Mandatory Standards) : “We report unethical or illegal conduct to appropriate management and, if necessary, to those affected by the conduct.”

Why didn’t I inform my management at the time? Well, I thought I had handled it and it was a done deal (“Problem solved!”) and there was no need to make trouble. Also, I thought my busy manager might not appreciate my throwing a hot mess onto his desk.

But years later, whatta ya know, our company wound up being burned in a different way by this very same sales rep.  We would have avoided this, had I disclosed the issue at the time, and given my manager and the company’s senior leadership the chance to take action on it.

Have you ever experienced a similar ethical choice on a project? Did the issue give you any lessons learned you might like to share? If so… Please Comment (below).

* Project Management Institute. Project Management Institute Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. 2006. http://www.pmi.org/en/About-Us/ Ethics/~/media/PDF/Ethics/ap_pmicodeofethics.ashx

About the author: Jeff Furman, PMP®  is a Project Management Instructor based in NYC. He currently teaches various levels of project management courses for NYU SCPS, IIUSA, and NetCom Learning.  He currently is developing a course in “Ethics In PM” for NYU SCPS, based on the two recent presentations he gave on Ethics In PM for PMINAC 2012 in Vancouver and PMI NYC’s Annual Symposium 2012. He is also the author of The Project Management Answer Book.

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