New MBAs vow accountability

Business school graduates pledge to practice social, economic, and environmental ethics in their careers.

By , Staff writer

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    LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Harvard Business School 2009 grads created the MBA oath, which drew more than 1,300 pledges by students and alumni from schools around the world.
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As they approached graduation, some Harvard Business School students had a simple goal: Find 100 classmates willing to put their names to an "MBA oath." They would pledge to "act with utmost integrity" and to "strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide."

The oath took off – not just at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., but around the world. (Read the full oath here.) By the June 4 commencement, more than half of the nearly 900 Harvard MBA graduates had signed on. By late July, the total had since risen to 1,427 students and alumni from scores of business schools, ranging from the University of Alabama to Singapore Management University.

In the wake of the financial meltdown, the MBA degree has lost its swagger. But these students hope to rescue its reputation and quell the public's wrath. Their efforts are part of a broader
effort to professionalize management by setting higher standards, akin to those agreed upon by doctors and lawyers.

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"It was kind of just the perfect storm of people really yearning for this and thinking, ‘I'm absolutely willing to stand by these principles,' " says Teal Carlock, a recent Harvard MBA graduate who helped draft the oath. His peers are eager to go public with their values, he says, to counter the perception that all business people operate with a "greed is good" philosophy.

The movement has encountered its share of skeptics who say the oath won't make a difference. "Those who are morally strong don't need the oath, those that are not won't honor it," one commenter wrote on BNET, a business website.

For David Hammons, an MBA candidate at Missouri State University in Springfield, the problem is the preamble's first line, which reads: "As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good...."

"In that statement, this oath has ceased to be an oath advocating capitalism," Mr. Hammons says. "It means that my individual pursuit of happiness is not ethical." The notion of the "greater good" has too often been abused, he says, citing the Cultural Revolution in China as one example.

Such dialogue highlights "a deep fundamental difference about what the purpose of the corporation is and whether it has any responsibility to society other than maximizing profits," says Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard business professor whose writings on professionalizing management have informed the student oath. It will take this kind of pressure, he says, for business schools to shift curriculum and practices to emphasize different values.

Business schools have ramped up ethics courses, in part in response to scandals such as the Enron debacle. These courses are a start, but they often stick to basic case studies, says Lawrence Belcher, a finance professor at the Stetson University School of Business Administration in DeLand, Fla. "Now, there's been a wake-up call for a lot of business schools to say, ‘We really need to have these discussions in a broader context ... [to consider] problems when managers and shareholders have different goals.' "

The MBA oath reminds people that despite the high-profile ethical lapses of late, "there are tons of financial advisers [and] analysts who go to work every day and perform necessary services that do create value," Professor Belcher says.

While the Harvard group's effort has perhaps created a tipping point, this isn't the first time business students have embraced an ethical pledge. A short oath created in 2004 became a formal part of applications and graduation ceremonies two years later at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

"It's been a phenomenal instrument to create a dialogue among faculty and students," says Thunderbird President Ángel Cabrera. He tells of students challenging a professor who commented that the cost of doing business in India sometimes included paying bribes. And he's heard from graduates who have carried into the workplace a willingness to take a stand against corruption. "It's forcing all of us to review what we do and to be consistent with it," he says.

That's the attitude that Harvard organizers want to spread. "Anybody can sign the oath, but it is about the thousands of decisions you're going to make in business," Mr. Carlock says. "Some of these decisions are unbelievably hard.... Hopefully people that have signed the oath will say, ‘OK, I took a stand ... and I'm going to make the right decision.' "

Carlock is heading to California soon for a job at a biotech company - an offer he received months before the oath took shape, he likes to point out to cynics who say it was a ploy to polish résumés.

Meanwhile, a group of business students and alumni are considering ways that the oath can have a greater effect - maybe by pairing people up as "accountability partners." In a nod to those who say the oath has no teeth, "we actually call them the Teeth Group," Carlock says with a laugh.

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