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Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol.6 Three Simple Tests to Determine if Behavior is Ethical

Fotolia 58149783 XS2Business ethics

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often.

In this issue I will continue our discussion about ethics. I submit we do not need a Code of Business Ethics to tell us what is right or wrong nor do we need the philosophical musing of Aristotle, Plato or Kant on what constitutes ethical behavior. Ethics by its nature is about the grey area in between right and wrong. It is about choices, neither of which is perfect.

I would propose three very basic rules to determine if an action is ethical.

The red face test – what would others think?
The sleepless nights test– what do I think?
The cover up test – do I need to cover it up since everyone knows the behavior is wrong?

I will illustrate with 3 stories, the names have been omitted to protect the guilty in the hopes they will see the light.

The red face test

If your mother saw what you were doing or if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper would you be embarrassed? If the answer is yes – don’t do it or if you have done it un-do it.

The newspaper will not be running your version of events nor your rationalization as to why you had to do it! You may well complain that the story is sensationalized, as newspapers are prone to do. And the facts, well certainly not the way you would phrase them. And what does your mother think? She loves you dearly, but will no doubt shake her head and say “just wait till your Dad gets home”.

I once heard a novice project manager rationalize why he had fired consultant ‘x’ and retained the much less qualified consultant ‘y’. He said that consultant ‘y’ had a relationship with consultant ‘z’ who had links to the end customer, hence consultant ‘x’ was chosen for the chopping block. Yes, politics is alive and well in many projects. But that does not mean it is ethical to act on political motivations, nor is the rationalization that “I had to do it because of the politics” is at all compelling.

Less than a month later, with the shifting political winds, the unqualified consultant ‘y’ was fired for being ‘unable to contribute’ . Now the Corporation had neither consultant. It was left with damaged relationships, inferior project output and an extremely red face.

The sleepless night test

One of the most ethical PM/consultants I know and now a CEO told me the story of when he was just starting out. He was a sub-contractor/consultant to a contractor who had landed an engagement with a large telecommunications organization. One day the contractor confided that he had actually won the contract by giving a bribe to an individual in the telecommunications organization. Our ethical consultant was shocked and at a loss as to what to do.

The angel on his shoulder told him it was wrong and dishonest, the devil on the other shoulder said –‘well you didn’t offer the bribe, it’s not your problem’.
The angel replied ‘it is wrong and dishonest’.
The devil countered ‘you are a sub-contractor and owe your allegiance to the contractor not the telecommunications company and beside if you broke the contractor’s confidence you would hurt him, lose your job and never be trusted by the contractor again’.
The angel replied ‘it is wrong and dishonest and you know it, if you do nothing you condone and participate in it’.

The back and forth continued without a ‘rational’ answer to the problem. –Just walk away? Hold your nose and say nothing?

But in the end it was the sleepless nights the ethical PM/contractor endured rather than any rational thought process that told him he was complicit in the cover up and he realized what the right thing to do was.

With much trepidation he approached an individual in the telecommunication organization without knowing whether he was approaching the person who accepted the bribe (it wasn’t). Of course there was hell to pay and a major uproar in the telecommunications company. While all the uproar played out, the ethical PM/consultant slept peacefully.

The telecommunications company recognized ethical behavior, thanked our ethical PM/consultant and initiated what would become a long-term relationship with him.

The cover up test

When behavior is laid bare and what others think, what you think, and the naked truth for all to see, is the same unethical behavior, there is no place to hide.

What to do then? Only a cover up will hide the naked truth.

As Richard Nixon learned, the cover up is worse than the crime. The cover up usually begins with the generation of a narrative. What went wrong? – create a narrative and stick to it, after all it’s just an interpretation and we can find a rationale that will protect our ass (said the devil sitting on one shoulder).

If you need a cover up narrative you know the behavior is wrong and you are better to be honest, communicate fully and clean up the mess quickly.

Some time ago a long time consultant who had been a key player in a mission critical project for several years attended an important project management event.

It was clear from the outset that others were presenting sub-optimal material which was in marked contrast to decisions taken at previous PM meetings. The consultant was taken aside and asked by the Project Lead and Project Manager to re-write the material being presented.

At the end of the week the consultant voiced his opinion, perhaps a bit too forcefully, of the sub-optimal material as he believed that was what he was being paid for – to give his advice even when it was unpopular to do so. Others including the Project Lead were silent, but several voiced their concurrence with the consultant’s evaluation in the parking lot outside (a much safer place to voice concerns). Alas, those presenting were unable to accept the criticism. A nasty political situation emerged.

The Project Lead, faced with an expensive sub-optimal project management event needed a cover up and quickly. Now cow towing to the political winds, the declining budgets and waning executive support for the project, they took an expedient path and fired the consultant they had two days before asked to re-write the material because of the shortcomings of others.

Why would someone do this? Because it works (said the devil) – easier to find a scapegoat and deny the poor performance despite it being evident to all that attended A narrative was created with some absurd accusations in it.

Adding to the unethical behavior was the corporate decision not to pay the consultant when budgets were tight despite a contractual obligation to do so. “Why not interpret the contract this way and cover up your mistakes” said the devil.

Unfortunately when an unethical corporate culture exists it permeates and colours decision making.

The ‘business decision’ is to do nothing – the consultant probably won’t sue and we won’t have to pay. If he does we’ll deal with it then. The Corporation lawyer told the consultant’s lawyer – “We have more lawyers than you do”, true enough but it sounded a bit like an unethical threat and only inflamed the situation.

Usually this is the end of it – not right, not ethical but you can’t fight City Hall.

At times like these, caught in the cross fire, one has a choice – shrug and walk away or engage in the Don Quixote fight. That is, take on the corporation and say the “king has no clothes!” No one wins these fights, but to do nothing is to condone the behavior. It is ethical and difficult to engage in such a fight. It is easy and unethical to do nothing.

The sleepless night test works both ways. The consultant decided to engage in the Don Quixote fight. His sleepless nights (and the angel on his shoulder) told him that to do nothing was to become complicit and condone the unethical behavior. Not only was he appalled at the way his long and loyal service had been dismissed in favour of political expediency, but the unethical corporate narrative that followed was just too much to swallow.

When the legal process unearthed the facts and shone a spotlight on the situation the Corporation stood bare assed for all to see.

In the end the corporation was forced to settle the lawsuit, ending up having to pay what was owed and expended much effort and resources in the process; to say nothing of the loss of corporate image.

Would it not have been much more efficient and ethical for everyone concerned to engage in honest communication up front?

Sometimes, as Richard Nixon demonstrated, power is intoxicating and the cover-up worse than the crime. Oh, to have Watergate tapes on this one – would the discussion be around fortifying the castle walls against Don Quixote attacks? How to be more careful about who you pick a fight with? Who to fire for this mess? I doubt it was a sober discussion around building corporate ethical values.

Sometimes Don Quixote does win, except it is a win in terms of principles and values only. In practical terms everyone loses – a valuable and dedicated resource was lost and a sub-optimal product was produced. The Corporation ended up bare assed for all to see, while the consultant lost his job, endured needless stress but in the end was able to sleep peacefully at night.

The moral of the story…

We need only 3 simple tests and the angel on our shoulder to determine ethical behavior. In the long run the ethical approach will prevail if not always in the short run.

Saddest of all are those who ignore the red face test hoping it will not make tomorrow’s edition of the paper; who through practice, mange to sleep through the night hoping the ‘cover your ass’ strategy will work for them. When the cover-up is unearthed and the behavior is there for all to see, then the moment of truth arrives.

The Corporation and the PM must look in the mirror and say how ethical am I? The answer is obvious (said the angel).

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