New MBAs and Their Code of Ethics

Harvard Business School

I respect the ambition of a group of recently graduated Harvard Business School MBA’s to promulgate a code of ethics. A story in the New York Times publicized this initiative. “When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.”

The oath is a voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs to “create value responsibly and ethically.” The 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.

The short version of the 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 create 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 choices that are not easy for me and others.”

There are some references to a professional code of conduct for MBA’s, similar t0 the oaths taken by lawyers and doctors. But the legal profession and medical profession operate under more than just an oath.  You  must past a test to prove a minimum level of competency to get licensed. There is also the coercive power of government behind these professions, prohibiting the unlicensed practice of medicine or law. It does not seem that these junior MBAs are proposing to go that far in advancing management as a profession. An oath without out some consequences for breaking it seems to lack authority.

Like Chris MacDonald, I question the title of the New York Times article and do not think we are in an era of immorality. I do not see the recent implosion in the financial markets as something caused by a lack of morals. There were many factors that caused the implosion. Personally, I think morality was merely a minor factor.


6 Responses to New MBAs and Their Code of Ethics

  1. Jenn Steele June 1, 2009 at 9:51 am #

    The only issue with making an MBA oath have consequences is that the MBA (or a subsequent board exam) is not a requirement of practicing business, like in medicine or legal, where it is. So how would you impose consequences? Would those of us with MBAs be held to higher ethical standards?

    I have an MBA, and I think the oath is both silly and necessary. Silly because, as you said, there are no consequences. Necessary because people seem to think that they remove an MBA’s soul right before graduation. As an ethical businessperson, that annoys me.

    • Doug Cornelius June 1, 2009 at 10:09 am #

      It strikes me that the items in the oath should have been taught as part of their MBA classes as good business practice. What were they taught that left them thinking that these things were not part of the requirement to succeed in business and life? The only one that jumps out at me is the sustainability statement.

      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.

  2. Ohad Reshef June 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    How about adding this oath to employers? every employee (with or without an MBA) will have to sign this oath? Or maybe this should be on voluntary basis but companies will have to publish what % of their employees signed the oath? perhaps government institutions will not be allowed to conduct business with companies with less than 90% of the employees that signed up. (Yes, I’m being cynical.)

    • Doug Cornelius June 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

      Ohad –

      Some of that is already in place. All public companies and many others realize a focus on business ethics helps reduce charges if company gets charged under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Federal Acquisition Regulations were recently changed requiring an effective compliance program and attention to ethics.

      Employees of these companies have to sign onto the code of conduct for the company.

      I don’t think you are being cynical, I think the MBAs taking the oath are being cynical.

      • Ohad Reshef June 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm #


        While it is important for corporations to train their employees on ethics and code of conduct (and my company has a lot of that) it is at the end of the day the company culture that drives employees to behave in a certain way. I’m sure that employees of companies such as AIG and Lehamn were signed on multiple codes of ethics etc. Yet, some employees behaved in way that endangered the company and its clients for their personal benefit. This sort of behavior was not frowned upon, for all I know. Therefore, I’m skeptical about the notion of training employees and having them sign things, without revisiting the culture and doing a reality check once in a while.

        • Doug Cornelius June 3, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

          I agree. That is why I am skeptical of something signed by an MBA at graduation will have any impact once they start working and are now in a new environment.