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'Pledge of Allegiance' to Good Business Ethics

August 19, 2010 By:
Adam Bell, JE Feature
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Students gather outside the Jon M. Huntsman Hall at the Wharton School on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

It doesn't take much to find a headline these days regarding ethical problems in the business world. Concerns over activities from the likes of Bernie Madoff, AIG, Goldman Sachs and BP remain all too familiar.

But for two years now, a student-initiated movement is trying to counter some of that news and provide business-school students with their own moral framework.

It's called the MBA Oath, an ethics pledge created by Harvard Business School students for students and graduates of MBA programs. The oath was inspired in part by a 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review that dealt with the need for some type of professional oath.

There remains some skepticism in the business community about how effective the oath could be. But it has attracted interest from other business schools around the country, as well as some in this region, including the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, St. Joseph's University and Lehigh University.

The pledge details a set of principles to follow, and is similar to the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, promising to do no harm. It can be considered an important Jewish value as well.

Part of the MBA Oath states: "In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust and esteem from those I serve."

Among the promises in the pledge are calls to not advance personal interests at the expense of your enterprise or society, and to refrain from corruption, unfair practices or business practices harmful to society.

Troy Woolley, a 2010 Wharton graduate now working for a New York consulting firm, said via e-mail that he signed the oath out of a sense of responsibility.

"To me, it is all about personal commitment," he wrote. "I didn't sign it to be part of some fundamental shift in society. I signed it for personal accountability, and as a sign of support for others who have made the commitment."

Long Way to Go

Last year, about 1,000 students took the oath. To date, about 4,300 have signed up so far, according to the oath Web site.

But they still have a long way to go, with those numbers representing just a sliver of all master's of business administration degrees.

So is simply swearing to do good and considering societal needs in the workplace enough to stem the tide of turgid headlines?

"I think it'll truly affect the next generation of business leaders," said Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program in New York. The institute is helping provide staff and other early support for the project.

Something like the oath can help establish habits to follow throughout one's career, she said.

"They need to do a lot of things, but the oath really brings it home," added Samuelson.

She noted that eventually, she hopes that the oath will extend to undergraduate business students, too.

Samuelson spoke of using the oath as one way to commit to something bigger than the individual as people look for different ways to help identify the impact their business decisions have on the community at large.

Still, the idea has not been without controversy and its detractors.

It came in for some national mocking on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," and continues to spur debate from people who doubt that words alone can help change a sometimes poisonous climate.

At Wharton, some 30 people have already signed the oath, according to the oath Web site at: www.mbaoath.org. (More information is also available at: www.theoathproject.com.)

Harvard Business School, where the movement first took root, accounts for 877 of the 4,274 people the site says have signed up; Columbia Business School has 27, and Yale School of Management has 11.

Nien-he Hsieh, co-director of the Wharton Ethics Program, has been lukewarm to the idea of an oath despite his supervisory role.

His ambivalence is clear: He called it well-intentioned, but is not sure it translates well in the business world.

He said that students have asked him why they should be taking an oath for something that they should be doing anyway.

And he does not believe a comparison to the Hippocratic Oath is quite on point. Unlike medicine, business incorporates many disparate jobs -- from accountant to management consultant.

At Wharton, MBA students are required to take an ethics class that does not preach right from wrong.

Rather, there is a discussion of the range of ethical challenges they could face, as well as ways to grapple with them.

Samuelson said that she hopes the oath will help prompt action regarding what people can do differently in their business practices.

To skeptical students and others, she asked: "What are you afraid of?"

There's another reason she offered as to why it matters how business people conduct themselves.

"We are in a world of hurt, in a values-free zone," she said. "But business and finance can help solve these complex problems."

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