This is one of those moral dilemma articles or articles that focus on a question of integrity. Let’s set the table. You are an experienced project manager and business professional. You’re managing projects either as an employee or a consultant for a smaller organization. Maybe you’re called in to fix some projects. Or manage a few tough implementations. Or help setup some PM structure where there wasn’t much before.
You eventually find yourself creating close ties with individuals who are employees of these organizations that you manage projects for and you end up witnessing inappropriate behavior from one or more of these so-called ‘friends’? What happens when you – as the hired PM expected to help this organization - become close with employees within the organization and you become privy to inappropriate actions taken by employees? I’m talking about fairly serious stuff here – like inappropriate dealings with their clients, or lying, or theft or things that could hurt the company. How do you respond to such behavior? How should you respond? Who should you go to? Should you do anything?
Obviously, you have three options you can choose from and how you respond can have a significant impact on your project management or consulting career if the situation isn’t handled carefully. Let’s exam these three possible responses…
Terminate. This is the do-nothing, take-it-on-the-chin approach. You terminate the engagement – if you even can. If you are consulting…quit. If you work for them as a W2 employee…quit. You leave the organization without revealing the underlying conflict or issue. You just say something like, “Due to extenuating circumstances, I can no longer work for/consult for your organization.” There, you’ve said it…it is done. But is it really…
Now it looks like you bailed, you’re a flake, and no company associated with this organization is ever going to hire you to consult for them…ever. You didn’t even get a reputation as a whistleblower. You’re just deemed strange.
Keep plugging along. This is probably the most traveled route. Proceed as if nothing has happened. And, indeed, if all you saw were some supplies being taken home, employees leaving for the day when the CEO is gone, or other somewhat harmless behavior, then this is probably the best action to take. After all, you can’t be completely certain of all company policies regarding this behavior or if some actions were pre-approved by the CEO or senior management. The blowing of any whistles would just be a speculative reaction on your part. If you are feeling uncomfortable from some employee actions, then it may be time to distance yourself from the employees in question in a personal sense while maintaining the professional relationship. State the consultant-employee relationship concern if you have to…make something up.
On the other hand, if you’ve witnessed a serious offense – like theft of money or other’s personal belongings, the revelation of company secrets or proprietary information to a client or competitor or other similar damaging behavior, and you choose to continue to maintain the status quo, then you can be setting yourself up for repercussions from the incident should senior management uncover the unethical behavior. And if you were there and didn’t say anything, you may be deemed guilty by association - which may be much more detrimental to your project management or consulting career than mysteriously terminating your contract.
Tell it like it is. This is not an action you can take lightly, quickly and without some forethought. You do this if – and only if – you’re absolutely certain that you witnessed some serious actions or behavior taken against the organization you are consulting for. I’ve been in this position once during my consulting career and I opted to take this route and set up a closed-door discussion with the CEO. The situation involved revealing proprietary data to a client and could definitely have been detrimental to the organization. It turned out well for me – the employee in question was terminated and I was offered a long-term position though I still chose to continue consulting instead. I was lucky – since it only involved one employee it didn’t ruin my relationships with the rest of the staff. However, if you’re dealing with a widespread problem in the organization, taking this route can be more troublesome and may likely end your relationship with the company no matter what happens to the employees.
Summary / call for input
This is a difficult situation. I’ve never found myself in this situation…thankfully. I have witnessed project clients being inappropriate, but that’s easier to deal with.
Readers – what would you do? What would you do or what have you done if and when this has happened to you? Please share your thoughts or real life scenarios and how things turned out.