Here’s the scenario: you come in as the experienced project manager with a small organization helping them map out their path to success.  Maybe you’re helping them setup good business practices to help them win business in the long run or maybe you’re just helping them over the short term get through some issues.  Or perhaps you’re leading projects for them and there’s really no end date in site for your engagement with this organization.  Each of these examples is fairly common and in each you’re bound to work very closely with some individuals within the organization.  You may even become fairly close friends with some of them.  While I can’t say I’ve really made long lasting friendships from such PM engagements….I try not to….I can say that I have made connections at most of my IT consulting stops that have remained in tact over the years.

But what happens when you develop 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 theft, lying, and behavior detrimental to the client organization’s goals and mission, etc.  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 the project

This is the do-nothing, take-it-on-the-chin approach.  You terminate the engagement – if you even can – and leave the organization without revealing the underlying conflict or issue.  You just say something like, “Due to extenuating circumstances, I can no longer consult for your organization.”  There, you’ve said it…it is done.  No it isn’t…

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.

Maintain the status quo

This is probably the route most would take.  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.

Blowing the whistle

Obviously, you don’t take this action lightly or on a whim.  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.

Call for responses