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Ethical MBAs? From Harvard Business School?!

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A recent article in the New York Times focused on a group of soon-to-be graduates of Harvard Business School who have signed an oath promising to “serve the greater good” as business leaders (HT: Susan McCool). According to the Times, almost 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath.”

Why are they doing this? According to The MBA Oath website, the idea for this oath came from HBS students who were inspired by the 100th anniversary of the MBA program and distressed by the absence of business leadership that might have staved off the global financial crisis. The students started asking questions like: “How did we get into this crisis? Why didn’t business school professors sound the alarms in advance of the meltdown? Why were so many MBAs involved in the decisions leading up to the crisis? Are MBAs so concerned with increasing their personal wealth that they ignore ethics and their responsibilities to society?” (Photo: Baker Library of Harvard Business School)

With such questions in mind, several students me with a couple of HBS professors, one of whom had recently written an article calling for a “rigorous code of ethics” for managers. The students and professors decided to get at least 100 HBS grads to sign an MBA Oath. They hoped that such a “small campaign” might “make a meaningful impact in the lives of those students and it might send an important message to the world about how attitudes are changing at one of the most well-known MBA programs.” At this point, over 160 students have signed on to the oath.

The oath comes in two version, a shorter and longer version. The full version is about 500 words; the shorter version is half as long. I will bring the shorter version here. You can find the longer version at this link.

The Harvard Business School MBA Oath, Shorter Version

As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can build alone. Therefore I will seek a course that enhances the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term. I recognize my decisions can have far-reaching consequences that affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and in the future. As I reconcile the interests of different constituencies, I will face difficult choices.
Therefore, I promise:

I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner.
I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers, and the society in which we operate.
I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.
I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise.
I will take responsibility for my actions, and I will represent the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
I will develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society.
I will strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide.
I will be accountable to my peers and they will be accountable to me for living by this oath.

This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.

What do you think of this oath? I’ll offer further observations tomorrow.

Topics: Faith and Work |

15 Responses to “Ethical MBAs? From Harvard Business School?!”

  1. Evan Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 6:06 am

    I do not think it is possible to comment on the Oath until I can ascertain what ground rules are in force.

    In a nutshell, here is the problem: when academics and Supreme Court Justices get involved, the ordinary meanings of words go out the window. The ordinary rules of comprehension depart. “God” takes on a completely different meaning. “Jesus Christ” becomes a concept, not a person. In the case of the Supreme Court, an “emanation from the shadow cast by the Bill of Rights” turns into “rights” never before envisioned or discovered.

    So, for all I know, the “well-being of society” means “fighting global warming by driving tiny cars, celebrating homosexuality and patriotically paying confiscatory taxes on everything.” I don’t know how it rolls at Harvard, but I suspect that it is the same way as at the institutions of higher learning that I attended.

    One cannot comment when words have no fixed meaning. One certainly cannot comment when “right and wrong,” “justice” and “truth” have no fixed meaning, but are “relative concepts.”

    Sorry if this sounds a bit jaded, but I have been down this road before in this sort of context, and my suspicions were abundantly well-founded.

  2. Bill Goff Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 6:43 am

    To me it is disturbing that a little over 80 percent of the Harvard Business School soon-to-be graduates have not signed the Oath.
    Your respondant Evan sounds more than a bit jaded. I hope that the well-being of society means fighting global warming by driving fuel-efficient cars, giving homosexuals equal rights under the law and honestly paying taxes even as we might work to change the tax laws.
    I’m intrigued by Evan’s idea of “the ordinary meanings of words”. Where does he find the ordinary meaning of terms such as justice and truth or the word “God”?
    Evan gives a rather long comment for one who writes that one cannot comment when words have no fixed meaning.

  3. slarrow Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 7:36 am

    I’m more in the Evan camp than the Bill Goff camp. The slipperiness comes from the definitions of “greater good”, “value for society”, and “sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity”. I wouldn’t take this oath until I got a solid definition of what those terms mean (which is Evan’s point.)

    Clearly, there are some elements of which he disapproves that Bill Goff thinks would be just fine (and expected.) So I would be very hesitant about taking this oath because I don’t like buying a pig in a poke, and I wouldn’t want someone coming back after the fact and filling in the meaning of those terms.

    So I appreciate the sentiment, am distressed that such an oath would be considered necessary (instead of ethical behavior just being expected), but ultimately reject this language because I can see the trouble spots. But youth does tend to rush in, so I imagine there will be several takers who don’t quite fathom everything they’ve signed up for.

  4. Bill Goff Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 8:28 am

    It is both amusing and freightening to think that there is a “Bill Goff camp”. If there is one, I hope it is full of happy campers who are willing to follow ethical admonitions such as “Love your neighbor” without asking, “Who is my neighbor?”.
    Goff’s campers are likely inclined to support the use of the Hippocratic Oath for soon-to-be physicians. I looked up that old oath and found that in the current version doctor candidates are ask (among other things) to pledge to avoid the “twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism”. I wonder if all who take this oath could agree on a definition of “therapeutic nihilism”.
    As far as I know I have never bought a pig in a poke (whatever a poke is), but I’ve eaten many ham sandwiches without first requiring a precise definition of the word ham.
    Happy camping!

  5. Evan Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Ah, Bill, there’s the proverbial rub. If all definitions are relative, how can there be a discussion, much less agreement? For example, what is now meant by “the Hippocratic Oath”? As you yourself noted, there is a more recent version that Hippocrates would not recognize. It no longer includes “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel, and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce an abortion.” It certainly would be important to know what a physician meant when invoking “the Hippocratic Oath.”

    One can have a lively discussion over any of the issues that we have mentioned, and reasonable minds may disagree on particulars, but only if you know they are on the table. As slarrow indicated, you need to know what the pig in the poke looks like before you buy it.

    Common consensus on ordinary words makes an exit in many venues. According to the Constitution, it is not permitted to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” So when the Supreme Court starts out by saying, “The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words…” you can bet your bottom dollar that they will shortly be defining some group of human beings out of the definition of “person” so fast it will give you whiplash. This is not merely a semantic problem, as Dred Scott and many others could tell you.

    Your comment,”Where does (Evan) find the ordinary meaning of terms such as justice and truth or the word ‘God’?” simply points to the problem. There was once near-universal consensus. Put another way, our country is founded on this notion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” yet in many segments of academia and jurisprudence, those truths are not only NOT considered “self-evident,” they are challenged as false.

    I freely apologize if I have given offense, but that is where the situation stands in my view. Considering the source, that Harvard Oath might mean any number of things.

  6. Jonathan Biggar Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 10:35 am

    There are parts of the oath that are pretty much directly contradictory to other parts. Primarily the parts that assume that the interests of the individual, the “enterprise” and “society” are all easily aligned, and that it’s obvious what actions have what effects on them.

  7. J Falconer Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Thanks Evan & posters, Evan’s reply echoes my sentiments exactly. Public institutions usually have a very public agenda contemporary with the social issues of the day & individuals & individuals of faith are often ignored, belittled or mistreated — so much sometimes for Advanced Learning — maybe practical application & travel is the best teacher & the individuals own experiences (work, faith,relationships, hobbies) etc everyone is entitled to their own opinions-thoughts & feelings. Thanks again Evan that would make awesome editiorials in”liberal” newspapers-if it could be published, read & heard Peace everyone for the current times we’re in j

  8. slarrow Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Incidentally, “pig in a poke” came from a medieval practice of selling meat to unsuspecting customers. The shyster would offer a suckling pig for sale in a bag of some sort–the “poke”–which the customer would buy unseen. Then, once the shyster was safely away with the money, the buyer would open the bag to find an irritated cat which would run off instead of a tasty pig which would become bacon. (Hence the related term, “letting the cat out of the bag.”) Other concepts like “bait and switch” and “read the fine print” also apply.

    So the question isn’t really, “what is ham?” Rather, it’s “is this ham?” The concern that Evan is expressing, I’d say, is that he wouldn’t want to bite into it and find out that he’s eating “vegetarian ham” or some such substance. That would smack of gastronomical nihilism.

  9. Don B Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Many who demand such clarity and inflexibility in the definitions of words don’t realize that ambiguity may be intentional and useful. An important reason our Constitution has remained viable is its use of words whose meanings can evolve as the country evloves. I believe much of scripture is also intentionally unspecific, to allow it to apply to differing and evolving situations. Certain monumental scriptural truths are of course black and white, but the fact that scripture does not get so specific as to (to use a perhaps trite example) call “speeding” a sin allows it to be applicable more universally over time and place.

  10. Ethical MBAs? Some Comments on the MBA Oath | Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 12:05 am

    […] do agree with the comment by Bill Goff, however, who wrote: “To me it is disturbing that a little over 80 percent of the Harvard […]

  11. Smithson Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Mark: Your comment section on your blog has become nothing more than a form for Bill Goff to bloviate - which is why when I recommend folks to your blog I tell them not to read the comments. Open comments are good but when one person dominates them it takes away from the real value of give-and-take between well-meaning and thoughtful individuals.

  12. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Smithson: You made me curious, so I checked. Bill Goff has contributed 2.6 % of the comments on my blog. Yesterday he added two comments, neither of which could be fairly called “bloviating.” His total of 250 words was 15% of the total words in comments yesterday (less, by the way, than Even or slarrow). So I’m afraid I do not agree with your observation about Bill’s comments. In fact, I appreciate Bill’s comments because they are always thoughtful, even when I don’t agree with them. Bill is a “well-meaning and thoughtful individual,” and this is clear from his comments. They have to do with ideas and are not personal attacks. Smithson, you are free, of course, not to read any comments, or any comments by any particular person. But I think the world is a better place when we learn to take seriously those who have ideas with which we disagree. I’m glad Bill feels the freedom to comment here as he wishes, and hope he continues to do so, and that those who disagree with him or with me or with whomever else will add critical comments that enrich the conversation.

  13. J. Falconer Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Rev. M. Roberts, Thanks for an open forum where
    individuals can express themselves fairly openly & a broad range of opinions-thoughts can be addressed. Most blogs can get hostile as there’s no end to problems, opinions, agendas & institutions. Most people are facing challenges of all kinds & have gone through challenges. Most readers I humbly agree with 90% or more of their thoughts. Also, thanks for defending speakers or readers who get an unfair shake of criticism. Thanks for moderating your website of any undue negativity. j

  14. Rueben South Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    I guess I’m a little hung up on the fact that only 20% of the graduating class signed it. Why not 100%? Is it really such a leap for future business leaders to promise to act ethically?

  15. Business School Blog Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I think that the culture of business schools is changing. I am currently a member of a top 30 B-school and we have an “honor code”. The code specifically applies to academic integrity, but it is taken very seriously and there is a high level of trust that students are following it. We are asked to not only hold ourselves accountable, but to hold our fellow students accountable. It works.

    This focus on integrity will easily translate into our careers. It is being ingrained in us that we need to live to a higher standard because of the authority many of us will inevitably be given.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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