The MBA Oath: Where Business and Ethics Meet...Maybe

 @ibtimes
on June 01 2010 3:38 PM

Business professionals are working to combat the blatant, unapologetic amorality in the business world. The government is taking measures by enforcing firm new regulations, the media is keeping a closer eye on corporate action, and, perhaps most impressively, business school students are taking initiatives to chang[e] business itself by changing the way its leaders think about their responsibilities.

An article in Boston.com, Executive honor, explains that business school students and graduates are achieving this lofty goal by encouraging new business leaders to take a simple oath pledging ethical behavior in their careers, not unlike new doctors who pledge their honor with the Hippocratic Oath.

The MBA Oath, an affirmation of ethical business behavior, was created by two professors at Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria (who has since been named HBS dean) and Rakesh Khurana. But even before the oath had been accepted nation-wide as the MBA graduation creed, other schools had instituted their own pledges (including honor codes at the Thunderbird School of Management and Columbia Business School).

The MBA Oath is to attempts to create...a value system for business-to turn management into a profession with aims beyond simply keeping share prices high.

Critics of such a creed say the oath is just fuzzy thinking. In order to grow the economy, they say, businesspeople need to keep their eyes on the prize-keeping share prices high is what serves the greater good ultimately (at least economically). Articulating ethical standards is not only ineffective, but may even serve as an obstacle.

The supporters of the oath point to the Hippocratic Oath for support. This code of professional conduct provides the power to shape and form ethical behavior in the medical field. Since the beginning of time people and institutions have developed-and then clung to-verbal oaths and codes to prevent the breaking of boundaries from becoming a common or accepted occurrence. Some believe that the simple act of taking an oath-not to mention ceremonializing it-is enough to reinforce the values reflected in the oath.

That being said, nobody is so naïve as to believe that an oath alone will fix all of the ethical problems that business faces. Instead, MBA Oath supporters see it as a first step in the larger project of 'professionalizing' the practice of management-turning it into a field, like law or architecture, whose practitioners are united not only specialized knowledge buy a shared set of values beyond personal enrichment.

The MBA Oath (the most popular of the b-school honor codes) has made an international impact: The United Nations and the World Economic Forum are working with some HBS graduates to create The Oath Project, a website that currently has 2,800 pledges from b-school students around the world.

Not all b-school graduates sign the MBA Oath. The question is still out-what will putting people before profit motives do to the field of business and to the economy? Thinking beyond profits is nice, and maybe even essential, but is it good for business?

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