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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Project Management Ethics and Professional Conduct – Part 5

“And that's the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.” Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

“It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

This blog is going to discuss the “Honesty” Standard referenced in the Project Management Institute (PMI)® Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. All quotes below are from the PMI Institute Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and a link to that document can be found here: https://www.pmi.org/about/ethics/code

My earlier articles can be read at: www.projectmanagementforum.net

The PMI definition of “honesty” is that it is our duty to understand the truth and act in a truthful manner in our communications and in our conduct.

I believe the honesty standard is really the cornerstone of all the other standards as responsibility, respect and fairness are all dependent upon it. This is also the standard that causes project managers the most challenges in the real world in which projects are delivered.

The aspirational standards are (distilled) that we seek to understand the truth, we are truthful in our communications and conduct, we provide accurate information in a timely manner, we make commitments and promises in good faith and we create an environment where others feel safe to tell the truth.

I have seen the standard that states that “we provide accurate information in a timely manner” prove to be problematic for project managers. It is human nature. Project managers spent a significant amount of time understanding and planning every aspect of the project. They baseline the project plan and then begin to execute, monitor and control the project. Sometimes the plan doesn't work as expected and the project begins to experience variance. How soon does that get reported? Many project managers will optimistically believe that the project will get on track, so they delay reporting and rationalize it by believing that reporting it too early would alarm people for no reason.

The definition of “timely” can be open to interpretation, but it shouldn’t be.

The two mandatory standards deserve to be listed in their entirety. The first states: We do not engage in or condone behavior that is designed to deceive others, including but not limited to, making misleading or false statements, stating half-truths, providing information out of context or withholding information that, if known, would render our statements as misleading or incomplete.

This has everything to do with accurate reporting on the project! Data can be spun to look many ways, questions can be answered without proper context and certain data can be withheld to create a different reality. And it can occur without a conscious decision to be dishonest! I have seen project managers preparing reports for executive steering committee meetings agonize about how to present bad news, and I have seen very clear and concise briefings become muddled by intervening levels of management trying to “smooth” the message!

Executives are not fragile creatures! They are paid to assess the fact pattern and make the decision. Give them the facts and don’t spin it!

The second mandatory standard states that we do not engage in dishonest behavior with the intention of personal gain or at the expense of another. Of course we don’t!

This should be the easiest standard to meet, but because of organizational pressures and politics you may wake up to find that your floundering project is being represented as an optimistic fantasy.

It is the project managers responsibility to investigate the facts and present them. Do that and this standard will be adhered to.


Getting an honest assessment of exactly how a project is doing is sometimes more difficult that it should be. I can recall working in an environment where projects were great until after annual ratings were completed, then suddenly problems were discovered. The executive I worked for at the time was an honorable person who just wanted the facts! We had put in place a standard project reporting color code – green was great, yellow indicated some problems had been identified and red indicated a real problem. I was co-chairing an executive steering committee where several projects that were presented as green at the last meeting were all suddenly in the red. And not a little in the red, but well behind schedule, over budget and perhaps technically impossible. My boss lost it, went into a tirade and demanded to know how this could happened. The room went silent and was like that for a minute or two when I said, “if only we had a color between red and green, maybe we wouldn’t be caught off guard!”. My boss stared at me, then burst into laughter and the meeting continued. After the meeting he told me it was my mission to make sure the reporting was fixed. And I fixed it.


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