Sustainability and Ethics; Demands on Project Managers


Prepared by: Majed Abdeen

I asked myself, when should employees leave their companies? The answer was simply, if sustainability and ethics are absent in the organisation. In my experience in Information systems (IS) projects, sustainability does not have such a major impact on the environment as construction and engineering projects do. Thus, the focus of Project Management is more on the environmental aspect of the project itself. However, the other two aspects of sustainability are integrated with IS projects; Economic and Social sustainability, although often the focus is economic, to the exclusion of other aspects. Sustainability such as ROI, Business agility, and Ethical behaviour, should be taken into account in IS projects (Marnewick, 2017, pp. 1151-1162). I believe that Ethical behaviour is not only something we should study or read about to pass a test or to get a job, but it should be applied in our life-style as a major personality trait.


Project Managers face demands from the increasing focus on sustainability and ethics across all industries. Sustainability (environmental protections, economic/social issues, the 'triple-bottom-line', TBL) is fully integrated into our lives, thus must be integrated into Project Management (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1154). With a greater focus on ethics within business, Project Managers may face ethical challenges during planning, execution, and termination of projects (Loo, 2002, p. 490) Project Managers must combine Creative, Logical, and Ethical-thinking to deal with Sustainability/Ethics while project-managing (Helgadóttir, 2008, p. 743).


Sustainability in Project Management is often environmentally-focused, thus appears more frequently in construction/engineering projects than in Information-Systems projects (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1151). However, sustainability relates to more than simply the project's environmental effect; scholars and practitioners would be wise to maintain a wider view. When defined, Sustainability possesses three aspects; economy/profit; social/people; environment/planet (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1153). Thus traditionally businesses focus on Economic Sustainability: maximising-profit, minimising-costs and increasing-revenue; Social Sustainability, including corporate social responsibility initiatives; and preserving the environment; IS Project Management identifies five aspects; people/environment/society/human-rights/economic (Marnewick, 2017, pp. 1153,1163).

These factors may not be compatible, thus Project Managers face significant demands/challenges when economic/environmental sustainability issues compete.

Sustainability - Demands on Project Managers

Sustainability is "management, development and delivery of project-organised change in processes, resources, policies, assets or organisations" which must use six identified sustainability principles, relating to both project and results (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1154). These principles focus on balancing the TBL in short-and-long-term, local/global aspects, using income, not capital, transparency/accountability, and personal values/ethics (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1155). Research indicates that some projects, particularly in IS projects, sustainability-focus is purely economical (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1162). We must not forget that Sustainability also applies within Project Management itself, in areas including knowledge-transfer, and project environment, as demonstrated in the Project Manager's sphere-of-influence, below:

Figure 1: The Project Manager’s sphere of influence (Majed Abdeen, after (PMI, 2017, pp. 52-56)
Figure 1: The Project Manager’s sphere of influence (Majed Abdeen, after (PMI, 2017, pp. 52-56)

Sustainability - Challenges

Sustainability challenges include situations where organisations prioritise only profit in the TBL (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1153); this may lead to ethical dilemmas. Alternatively, organisations may neglect necessary actions to incorporate sustainability, or may not integrate it into core-functions (Marnewick, 2017, p. 1153).


Ethics attempts to identify, and act on, the right rules/intentions/priorities, based on integrity/virtuousness (Helgadóttir, 2008, pp. 743,745). There are two theories: Outcome-oriented, where goals dictate whether actions had integrity, and Process-oriented, in which the process dictates whether actions have integrity (Helgadóttir, 2008, pp. 745-746). Lee identifies several other theories, particularly related to virtual Project Management (Lee, 2009, p. 456).

Ethics - Demands on Project Managers

Project Managers must act not only as leader/manager for the project, but also for ethics, defining ethical behaviour (Lee, 2009, pp. 456,462). Doing so supports organisational sustainability, ensuring employee satisfaction/process efficiency (Lee, 2009, p. 462). Skills required vary based on organisation, and environment; skills required for virtual-teams differ from those for in-person-management, as ethical challenges differ. Project Managers must be able to discern ethical-dilemmas, and make ethical decisions (Lee, 2009, p. 462). They must be perceived as having various attributes including credibility, sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and strong ethics and must beware of becoming involved in making poor ethical decisions (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 107-111) despite pressures from organisational leadership. Both APM and PMI hold codes of ethics that Project Managers must adhere to and be aware of. PMI identifies four key values: Responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty (PMI, 2019, p. 2), while APM highlights Professionalism (knowledge and skills) as well as ethics (conduct and behaviour) and personal responsibility (honesty and prompt action) (APM, 2011, pp. 2-4).

Ethics - Challenges

In dealing with challenges, the total ethical-risk analysis method can be used to quantify, and identify sources of ethical risks (Helgadóttir, 2008, p. 744).


As ethical/sustainability issues become prevalent, so Project Management practice must develop, adopting methods for managing/dealing with these issues. They place several additional demands on Project Managers beyond those found in the traditional iron-triangle, and demand additional personal skills/strengths from Project Managers.


APM, 2011. APM Code of Professional Conduct, UK: The Association for Project Management (APM).

Helgadóttir, H., 2008. The ethical dimension of project management. International Journal of Project Management, 26(1), p. 743–748.

Lee, M. R., 2009. E-ethical leadership for virtual project teams. International Journal of Project Management, 27(1), p. 456–463.

Loo, R., 2002. Tackling ethical dilemmas in project management using vignettes. International Journal ofProject Management, 20(1), p. 489–495.

Marnewick, C., 2017. Information system project's sustainability capabality levels. International Journal of Project Management, 35(1), p. 1151–1166.

Meredith, J. R., Samuel J. Mantel, J. & Shafer, S. M., 2015. Project Management: A Managerial Approach. 9th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

PMI, 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI, 2019. Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct, US: Project Management Institute, Inc.