Ethics @ Work: The MBA oath

An ethics pledge for future business leaders.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
The big business-ethics news this week is the "MBA oath" - a voluntary pledge made, so far, by more than 20 percent of the new graduating class of the Harvard Business School. The oath has been around for a while, but it attained public attention this week due to a prominent article in The New York Times. A similar code is obligatory among graduates of the Columbia Business School, the Times reported. Integrity The eight elements of the oath are quite varied: some obvious, some innovative, some perhaps even controversial. The first promise, and the least controversial, is: "I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner." Honesty and integrity are the basis of business ethics. But the list goes on, and rightly so. Integrity is not enough, since you can go about an unethical business in an ethical way; for example, making sure that all of your teenage heroin customers get the best product at a fair price. Safeguarding interests Promise two: "I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, coworkers, customers and the society in which we operate." This pledge expresses the popular "stakeholder" approach to management, in which the manager considers the interests of everyone, not only the shareholders who are his employers. This sounds nice, but it can be problematic. Consider that if the company is safeguarding the interests of the customers, while the customers are not safeguarding the interests of the company, then the shareholders could get shortchanged. The answer is that the person is more likely to agree to be your worker, customer, etc., in the first place if he knows you are committed to his interests. Such a commitment adds real value to the company. Imagine that the king granted you a special right, given to no other person in the kingdom: the right to slap anyone you wanted, without any punishment. You would probably rush to ask the king to withdraw this privilege right away, since the very right to mistreat people would make you persona non grata pretty quickly. (For the same reason giving workers too many rights can make businesses think twice about hiring any in the first place; but now is not the time to talk about the new labor laws being considered by the Knesset.) By the same token, committing to care about others can help you a lot. Sustainability Another trendy addition is number seven: "I will strive to create sustainable economic, social and environmental prosperity worldwide." Sustainability was not high on our agenda as recently as 10 years ago, but it seems fairly uncontroversial nowadays. My quibble on this one is that it is pretty much lacking in content; every business believes that its conduct promotes sustainable prosperity. Self-interest Number three: "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." This is of value because, as the commentary says, "The pursuit of self-interest is the vital engine of a capitalist economy, but unbridled greed can be just as harmful." Self-interest is in the public interest only when it is subject to a variety of constraints. Some of these constraints are imposed by law, but it is good for everybody if others are self-imposed through the MBA oath. Fixing bad laws Number four sounds the most innocuous but is, in my opinion, the most problematic: "I will understand and uphold, both in letter and in spirit, the laws and contracts governing my own conduct and that of my enterprise." What if the laws are bad? The commentary explains: "If I find laws that are unjust, antiquated or unhelpful, I will not brazenly break, ignore or avoid them; I will seek civil and acceptable means of reforming them." This is the correct and ethical approach in a developed democracy like the United States, Western Europe, Japan, etc. However, it might need to be adapted for use in many developing countries, where the authorities are often in no hurry to reform unjust, antiquated and unhelpful laws. It is not unusual for 60% of the private sector to be underground in developing countries, including much higher figures for many industries; pre-committing to strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the law in such backward locales could, in my opinion, be ethically counterproductive. Professionalism Another noteworthy point is the introduction of professionalism as a consideration. Both promise six and the commentary to promise eight refer to business as a "profession." This is a reflection of a growing trend for business schools to try to define business as a profession, meaning a line of work with defined standards and a defined role in society. I think this oath is a very constructive step. That some of the elements reflect contemporary concerns or are potentially controversial is not a minus but a plus; it shows that it is a thoughtful document that seeks to genuinely engage and challenge the future business leaders it is trying to attract. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.