The MBA Oath

Last week, 900 students gathered on a sunny day in Boston, 100 years after the founders of Harvard Business School determined that they would create a school to professionalize the art of management.  It was an honor being among those who received a diploma, but the afternoon session the prior day offered a different kind of special feeling.  After the class heard Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, talk about life lessons and a greater responsibility to local communities and society, several hundred graduating students gathered in the business school auditorium to take an oath to live up to a higher standard as managers.

My experience with business ethics started during my undergraduate years at the University of Notre Dame.  There, the faculty and administration were among the leading proponents of business ethics, not least because of the Catholic nature of the school.  As I was preparing to enter the working world, I wondered how all of this ethical focus was going to tangibly affect my decisions.

I got a clearer answer when I sat for the CPA and CFA exams, which each have a large ethical component as well as a code of conduct by which members are expected to act in their professional and personal lives—if these are broken, the penalties are severe, and can lead to loss of credibility and accreditation.

So, after several years in the management consulting world, I came back to graduate school to study business and public administration at Harvard.  While I was surrounded by both capitalistic and public/non-profit peers and inundated with businesses cases across sectors, I have always wondered how the lessons we learned in my classes would bear on our day-to-day actions.

That is why I was so enthused when a classmate of mine told me about an idea he had for a ‘hippocratic oath' for MBAs, just like doctors take.  In my mind the idea of both having an ethical framework as well as adding professionalization and accountability to the MBA graduate cohort was a great thing. 

Twenty-five of us have been working on this for the last month, and we have received a huge response from the current HBS graduating class (more than 50% signed the oath), graduating students at other business schools, alumni from several business schools, as well as several national press outlets.  While the press coverage and blogs have ranged from completely against/skeptical of the Oath to completely backing the effort, it has been a great thing to get a balanced discussion going on business ethics and how we as a profession and as a society need to learn from the current financial crisis.

A couple of the highlights from the Oath include:

Goal: Our long-term goal is to transform the field of management into a true profession, one in which MBAs are respected for their integrity, professionalism, and leadership. We hope to see hundreds of thousands of MBAs take the MBA oath, or something like it, as a step towards realizing this vision.

Preamble: 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.

So, what does this mean for all of those folks out there preparing to apply to schools this fall.  There are several questions you should consider and attempt to answer:  What am I expecting to garner from a prospective business school in terms of business ethics education and institutional knowledge about the causes of the financial crisis or business failures in general?  Do I see a value in having accountability for my actions as an MBA?  What sort of ethical code to I live by and aspire to?  Knowing that the Oath and its tenets are top of mind for many business school professors (and likely admissions committees), how can I relay these thoughts successfully in my applications?

While many bloggers have criticized the Oath for lacking teeth or any process for accountability, I am confident that this aspirational first step has been necessary to get the word out there.  I see a strong possibility that, like an MD, JD, or CPA, the MBA will begin to take on a stronger meaning and will embrace accountability standards that will reward and punish ethical and un-Oath-like behavior, respectively.

To learn more about the Oath, go to http://mbaoath.org.

Below is a selection of national news media on the Oath:

New York Times — "A Promise to be Ethical in an Era of Immorality"

Financial Times — "Harvard MBAs Pledge to Do Good"

The Economist — "Forswearing Greed"

CNN - "MBA Students Pledge to Serve the Greater Good"

BusinessWeek — "MBAs — First, Do No Harm"

Please share your thoughts and comments! 

 

Originally hailing from the Midwest, Paul Buser attended the University of Notre Dame for his undergraduate education. There he studied Finance, Accounting, and Public Policy while tirelessly cheering (in vain) for a Notre Dame football championship. After graduating summa cum laude in 2003, Paul worked as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago and Thailand, specializing in operations and strategy. He has also directed a non-profit consulting team in Cambodia, Kosovo, and the U.S. through the International Business Council. Paul is a CPA and holds a CFA charter, and he just graduated with combined degrees from Harvard Business School (MBA) and the Kennedy School of Government (MPA). As part of the Ivey Consulting team, Paul works with business school and public policy school applicants.