The Oath: An Ethics Promise at the Harvard Business School

The core commitments of business ethics aren't complicated in principle. But their application in the real world demands nuance, sophistication, hard thought, wisdom, skill, and consistency.
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Is it a great development in contemporary business for freshly minted MBAs in the hundreds to voluntarily take a personal Ethics Oath prior to entering the workforce? Or is such a thing, like many critics declare, an empty gesture and a waste of time, or even an additional opportunity for cynical manipulation of fragile public confidence?

This week, The Harvard Business School graduated at least eight hundred new Masters of Business Administration. According to the New York Times, that's more than double the number of new medical doctors and lawyers emerging from Harvard this year, all together. At first glance, this may seem like an instance of extreme imbalance. Why do we need so many biz whiz operators, compared to practitioners in medicine and law? But these numbers should really be no surprise, since every law firm and medical office is now clearly a business, and the number of other businesses in the world outside these restricted realms is vastly more than double the number inside them. Every business needs managers. And Harvard provided more than a few this week.

About a month ago, one of the business students looking forward to this year's graduation ceremonies in Cambridge, Maxwell F. Anderson, had an idea. There should be an MBA oath, in some respects analogous to the famous Hippocratic Oath that's so famous in medicine. And it should focus on ethics. Perhaps it could help rehabilitate our current notion of business management and elevate it into more of a true profession, in the classic sense, like law and medicine. With the encouragement of two of his professors, and some fellow students, he began to formulate a pledge, and to promulgate the idea. He's reported he would have been delighted if a hundred of his classmates signed the pledge before graduation. In fact, more than four times that many did.

This act has drawn cheers, jeers, and much ink throughout the world of journalism. Supporters applaud its focus on all the right things. Detractors roll their eyes and say that it either abandons the core mission of business - in their view, doing whatever it takes to make as big a profit as possible - or that, at least, it encourages hypocrisy and empty grandstanding that results in nothing more than unenforceable promises.

This is the short version of the oath. The longer, explicated, version is available here.

The Oath

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.

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.

The oath, available on a wallet size card, was actually put onto chairs at one of the graduation events this week.

What is an oath, pledge, or public promise like this? Basically it's an affirmation before witnesses of a commitment, the signaling of a personal intent and resolve. As such, it is clearly an act of speech or a performance of signature that can be either honest or dishonest in its inner intentions. Liars and straight talkers can utter the same words to do very different things. That isn't unique to this case.

I personally applaud Mr. Anderson and the signatories who took this oath out of personal conviction. They are taking a stand and drawing the attention of a much broader public to what matters most in business and in life. Integrity doesn't just make for good press. It makes for deeply satisfying and sustainable success. Ethics isn't just a way of staying out of trouble, or of reducing criminal fines and other sanctions under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Ethics is way of creating strength. It's a distinctive and unique path to relationships of trust, accomplishments of value, and a legacy of long-lasting meaning.

Ultimately, business ethics is all about:

Responsibility: to the greater good and the big picture of human life.

Transparency: in our decision-making and actions.

Honesty: in what we say, show, and do.

Accountability: with respect to what we've caused or contributed to in our actions.

The core commitments of business ethics aren't complicated in principle. But their application in the real world demands nuance, sophistication, hard thought, wisdom, skill, and consistency.

Congratulations to the Harvard Business School Class of 2009 for bringing all this to our attention in a vivid way, and for generated a new conversation about business ethics when we clearly need one. I'd love to be able to talk to each of those graduating students who signed the pledge, as well as those who didn't, and follow them through the next ten years of their careers, watching what they do and how they do it. Too much modern education focuses on perfecting the means to our ends. We need to focus on the ends as well, analyzing them and assessing them wisely, as recent events clearly demonstrate.

I think that the early crew of leaders at Harvard, like the Puritan divine, Increase Mather, would have applauded this novel development, perhaps added a few clauses of their own, and urged such an oath on us all.

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