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Harvard MBA Oath – How Helpful?

In May 2009, the New York Times carried the important story of how some Harvard Business School graduates volunteered to take an “ethics oath” as they exited the MBA program.  One year later, HBS appointed as its new Dean the advocate for that pledge.

These bits of news became national news for one main reason:  the U.S.  and its people suffer horribly from widespread unethical decisions and practices by leaders in all fields of business and government.  To have Harvard assert its concern is a high-profile call to pedagogical armaments against more moral corruption–and noting self-interest–provide student recruiters and grant-writers other benefits.

The Pledge Means Little

One should read both the original, longer MBA Oath and its shorter one.  The main benefit of any subject in the Oath is its utility for classroom teaching or personal reflection.  As far as real moral guidance for the individual, the Oath is questionable.

Surely, surely, there have been many unethical leaders and managers whose names were on the membership rolls of some Christian church or Jewish synagogue.  Yet, had those same so-called ‘religious’ persons had believed and practiced the Mosaic commands against     After all, if someone is guided by academic discussion in the classroom.  reminds students, whether they volunteer or not to take it, of some very important ethical issues and areas, as leaders hile the subjects and phrasing are all important, carefully nuanced, and reflect great circumspection,

ed is theI read a news article, ‘Do no harm’ ethics pledge urged for MBAs-Goal: Put employer, society before personal ambition, by Oliver Staley with the Bloomberg Press.  The title caught my attention for obvious reasons, since I am very concerned about ethics and ethical leadership.  I then went to the Internet and researched Harvard’s website to find a copy of the text, which I quote:

Harvard Business School’s MBA Oath

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.

My immediate reaction to this “news” was a mix between interest and humorous skepticism.  I thought, “Well, how appropriate for someone to try to sprinkle ethical water on these budding sprouts, these Harvard MBAs, about to enter the workforce.”  My second thought was immediate.  “Yet how fatuous and naive.”  I will be brief as I dispatch this well-intended but just as surely ineffective sop to our current conditions.

Perhaps there will be one or two Harvard MBAs who will look back on their ethics pledge and receive some kind of moral guidance in years to come.  This is possible in a Leibnitzian “best of all possible worlds.”  There may be some man or woman who, in months and years to come, will look back to the day when the oath was presented and discussed, and some epiphany of morality appeared to inspire.  This is possible, for people can do amazing things, for people are people, after all.

But in the real world, the world of going in debt on five bedroom homes, Mercedes, and golf club memberships, the world of ski trips and globe-hopping junkets and $1000 dollar suits, memories do not last long regarding idealistic pieces of paper signed when one was about to leave the vaunted climes of Harvard Business School to enter the world of work.  This is particularly true when those Harvard MBAs go to work for some corporation with a stable of in-house attorneys who assure them that the latest, right-on-the-edge-of-legal means for profit will produce bonuses in the millions of dollars.

Self-interest is the name of the game for most Americans in the marketplace.  History shows us that most people who believe they can make as much money as is legally possible, with least unmanageable risk, will go for the money.  Pick any corporate scandal over the last thirty years–arbitrageurs, savings and loans, scams, banks and financial institutions, insurance, automotive makers.

The mature and seasoned executives who made these decisions were not wickedly bad people.  They were not uneducated, ignorant people.  Were we able to gather their college transcripts, all probably had to take a basic course in philosophy, which always includes classical discussions of ethical systems and issues.  They probably, at least some of them, had memberships in some religious organization.  Every religious organization teaches divine laws and principles on what is required to please God.  It is safe to assert that the principal architects, and the lower employees, of the causes of these scandals and crises all had some real measure of ethical and religious education.

So should we simply abandon efforts at ethics education, the creation of oaths, discussions of their importance, and encouragements to sign them, as if these creations will create the ties between executives and potential innocent victims of corporate misbehaviors?  No.  Perhaps there will be one or two people who will be affected.  But let no one believe that such attempts will be very successful.

For every five seconds required to sign some piece of paper encouraging public responsibility, there is a daily, endless number of commercials, ads, conversations, and other communications in our society emphasizing that materialism, money-making, and acquisition of things is the goal of American life.  The bonds between citizens grow weaker and weaker every year.  The strongest biological bond of all, that between parents and children, is not strong enough to make many Americans do the right thing.  Aging parents are shuttled off to nursing homes out of sight, out of mind, away from interfering with busy schedules and career schedules.  Why would anyone believe that a Harvard ethics oath should have any effect on behaviors towards strangers when behaviors towards parents or children demonstrate a lack of human compassion or love?

The ethical problems we face as Americans are fundamental and deep.  So long as children are born to parents whose values and point of view about the meaning of life are defined and guided by a culture saturated in materialism, then we can expect little loyalty to people, and more loyalty to money.  Scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and other scandals in Protestant communions–concerning sex and money–illustrate that not even God’s teachers have obeyed in their personal lives the standards they teach to others.

No Harvard MBA ethics oath is going to have any impact stronger than the bonds either of biology or religion.  And as I have argued here, in America, both the fundamental bonds of biology and religion are demonstrably in deep trouble.  God help us!