What's Missing from the MBA Oath?
I just finished reading The MBA Oath. In case you are not familiar with it, the Oath was conceived of by Harvard Business School students in the aftermath of scandals at financial institutions and Ponzi schemes such as the Bernie Madoff affair. Its purpose is to address the crisis of confidence in business following these scandals and forerunners at companies such as Enron and WorldCom. In its attempt to professionalize management, the Oath creates a series of promises that colleges and universities, as well as their MBA students, can sign on to and pledge to follow. According to the Oath website (http://www.mbaoath.org), about 40 schools both in the US and outside have signed the Oath while 17 others have had significant participation in the process. This is an impressive record for such a short period of time following the Oath's inception in 2009.
According to its Preamble, the Oath commits managers to serve the greater good by creating and enhancing value for society in the long-term while recognizing a variety of interests, not only those of stockholders. This stakeholder approach is quite common in business ethics because it incorporates a broader variety of parties affected by corporate actions including creditors, employees, customers, suppliers and the government.
The promises one makes when signing on to the Oath include: (1) To act with integrity and in accordance with ethical standards; (2) To safeguard the interests of stakeholders and society; (3) To act in good faith and place the interests of the stakeholders above one's own self-interests; (4) To uphold both the letter and spirit of the law and contracts; (5) To accept responsibility for one's actions, and represent the performance and risks of the enterprise accurately and honestly; (6) To develop oneself and other managers under one's supervision to support growth and development of the profession and enhance the well-being of society; (7) To strive to create sustainable value and environmental prosperity worldwide; and (8) To be accountable to one's peers and they will be accountable to me for living this oath.
I believe the most important aspect of The MBA Oath is that it can serve as an orientation and teaching tool for MBA students. It should be discussed prior to or at the inception of the MBA program. The basic promises in the Oath should be discussed throughout the curriculum for it to have true meaning. It shouldn't be just a document that is presented once and then forgotten about as has happened with too many company codes of conduct.
My problem with the Oath is that it fails to target those who are responsible for insuring that the Oath is treated with the seriousness that it deserves -- the professors who teach in a MBA program. It has been my experience that far too many professors play lip service to ethics. Perhaps it is because they feel uncomfortable covering material that has a philosophical base. However, these days the discussion of philosophical reasoning is an accepted approach to teach managerial ethics and ethical decision making. My greater concern is that professors must serve as role models both inside and out of the classroom for the Oath to have true meaning. They must walk the talk of ethics and treat students in accordance with the tenets of the Oath. What's needed next is for an organization such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) -- International to require the adoption of the Oath and assess whether members of the AACSB adhere to its basic principles in both curricula and administrative policies. This may be a long-term goal but it is one that must occur for the Oath to be enforceable to some degree. Otherwise, it relies on voluntary compliance and that may not work very well especially since it becomes subject to the vagaries of institutional oversight and not a common set of standards.