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Corporate oaths? Now even business students are expected to be ethical

Corporate oaths are the latest trend for business students following globalfinancial crisis

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / September 28, 2009

Harvard Business School student Danial Moon wears a sign reading "The MBA Oath" before Harvard University's 358th Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Mass. in June.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Business people in fields tarnished by the financial crisis have a trust problem. So they’re doing what the ancients did when strangers cocked a wary eyebrow before sealing a deal. They’re taking oaths.

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On both sides of the Atlantic, white- collar workers are weighing whether to pledge publicly that personal gain won’t come at the expense of moral principles. But whether oaths can succeed in fostering ethical cultures where laws and regulations have come up short is a matter of debate.

In American business, more than 1,400 individuals with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree have signed the newly created MBA Oath. Signatories promise, for instance, to look out for co-workers’ interests and to guard “against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.”

In academe, Columbia Business School in New York and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., have in recent years begun requiring all students to pledge honor codes that bind them to ethical standards throughout their careers. In Europe, a Netherlands Bankers’ Association panel recommended in April that all bank executives take an oath assuring, among other things, “I know my responsibility toward society.” [Editor's note: The first sentence of this paragraph was changed to reflect that Columbia introduced the requirement in 2006.]

Observers sense irony in this trend. Ancient cultures used the threat of a curse against oath breakers in part because they had no credentialing bodies to vouch for someone’s skills or character, according to Kevin Uhalde, a historian and expert on ancient oaths at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. In early Christendom, an oath marked a covenant among parties, including God, who was thought to punish anyone who’d dare betray his pledge. To ensure conscientiousness, an oath was all people had.

Against this historical backdrop, expanding oath-taking in an age of advanced training and regulation is arguably akin to putting wooden wheels on a race car with hopes of improving performance. But Professor Uhalde wonders whether oaths might be undergoing a reinvention to serve a new, timely purpose.
“When modern people are turning to oaths, it seems to be because they want something higher” than present-day safeguards are providing, Uhalde said. “Apparently, professional degrees and things like that don’t count enough, so they want something more spooky or intimidating.”

But oath-takers believe they’re doing more than implying an appeal to the supernatural, or going on record as aspiring good guys. They hope they’re setting standards by which all in their fields – even nonoath-takers – will be judged.