Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Sign on the dotted line

Published By: The Independent - 01 Oct 2009

In the past MBA graduates went out into the world vowing to do whatever was necessary to claw their way to the top. Now they are pledging to work for “sustainable prosperity” and promising never to put their own ambitions ahead of those of their companies.

In the post-credit crunch world business school students are lining up to sign a new MBA Oath that commits them to pursuing their careers with honesty and integrity. They are pledging to “develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the well-being of society” and pay equal attention to “shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.”

The Oath was created this Spring by a group of Harvard students, but has been quickly taken up around the US and in countries from India to South Africa. One thousand six hundred students have signed up so far, including half of Harvard’s class of 2009. Here in the UK many MBA students are talking about it, although few have yet signed on the dotted line. Only students from Oxford’s Said Business School have so far signed up in any significant number.

Critics say such a pledge is naďve and unenforceable, but The Oath is garnering attention as a very public renunciation of the kind of winner-takes-all capitalism that led to last year’s financial collapse. It is also being seen in some quarters as a desperate attempt to rescue the image of go-getting MBAs.

John Curle, 30 ,an American who has just gained his MBA from Oxford, said he signed it because it echoed his beliefs and “I felt it was important to express my opinions and how I felt. Someone e-mailed it around our class and we had informal discussions, and I pretty much agreed with all it said. As for in being unenforceable, you can say that about almost any promise you make. I took one as a certified public accountant, but plenty of accountants don’t hold to it in the work they do. I just feel this is something that will help me be more conscious of my decisions.” He is now back in New York looking for a job in socially responsible investing.

Many of the Oath’s ideas come from two Harvard professors, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, who argue that management ought to be profession like medicine or law with proper qualifications and a clear code of practise.

However some commentators feel it is unlikely such youthful high-mindedness will hold out against the harsh pressures of the business world while others go further, saying that only those with an ‘MBA mindset’ could see the need to make a formal pledge to act with integrity and consideration, and that the Oath is really only the business education industry trying justify its existence.

Huw Morris, dean of the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and chair of the Association of Business Schools’ ethics committee, points out that the Oath has grown directly out of the particular culture of Harvard, where ethics and values have been actively debated in recent years, and where in 2006 Larry Summers was forced to resign as university president after saying he thought women’s abilities differed from those of men.

But Morris believes that anything that encourages people to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it is a probably good thing, provided “too much analysis doesn’t lead to paralysis”.

“Everyone needs to be aware of the social and environmental consequences of what they are doing and there is now a broad consensus that such ethical issues are very important. People are aware of them and concerned about them.”

At Cranfield School of Management MBA students have already discussed the Oath. “Some were enthusiastic, some were deeply cynical, and some felt there was a cultural issue here and they personally weren’t happy with a public declaration,” says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility. “ In America, where they have the Pledge of Allegiance, there’s a rather different view of these things. But I’m in favour of anything that helps people question what’s the purpose of business, is it for shareholder value, or is it for the wider society? There’s definitely a need for more debate around these issues.”

“An MBA should certainly support the ideal of ethical practice in business and all forms of corporate activity,” says Charlie Wilkinson, MBA director at the Bournemouth University Business School. “ Many business decisions are likely to have ethical dimensions, and managers need to develop their appreciation of how these can be recognised and resolved. Whether or not an oath will have any impact on decisions or behaviour is very much a matter for the individual. If an oath helps a manager to behave ethically then it’s a good thing. So I don’t think oaths are daft, provided that they have meaning for the individuals concerned, but I would prefer to think that managers will act ethically out of their innate respect for humanitarian and enlightenment values.”

But business schools are being pushed to play an increasingly major role in helping to develop those supposedly ‘innate’ values. Most schools now offer modules in business ethics but in a growing number of institutions these issues are now gravitating from the periphery of MBA courses to their core. In a world facing climate change, pollution, a depletion of resources and increased financial uncertainty, these schools understand that both students’ wishes and the needs of the market are forcing change.

Joan Fontrodona, director of business ethics at IESE Business School, in Spain, feels that, for the MBA Oath to have value, it needs to be linked directly to this movement. “On its own an oath might be charged with emotional commitment and goodwill but if it is not put into practice, its meaning is only superficial.

“I believe that signing an oath would have more meaning at the end of a process, like closing a deal by signing a contract. In this case, the process for business schools would be incorporating ethics into the MBA curriculum. Not just by adding a couple of courses on business ethics but actually by changing each and every course to have an ethical perspective.” IESE, he says, is already doing this.

The MBA Oath originally started out as a class project, to mark the 100-year anniversary of Harvard Business School, but has mushroomed into a movement that is asking questions world-wide about what business is about.

“This is all absolutely fundamental,” says David Grayson. “Whether you need the mechanism of an oath is questionable. But at least let’s engage with it. Let’s debate the purpose of management education.”