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An Ethics Pledge for MBAs

harvard gradsLawyers have their oath of attorney, and doctors have that Hippocratic one, but it struck Max Anderson, a Princeton alumnus who today graduates from the Harvard Business School, that MBAs have nothing. And so he and several of his classmates created the MBA oath, a promise to "act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner." (Read all eight parts of the pledge here.) "The idea was for us to do something symbolic and meaningful as we graduate into the worst financial crisis of our times," Anderson says. "What the heck does an MBA mean anymore? You walk into a doctor's office and see an M.D. on the wall, and it inspires some kind of trust and confidence. If you see an MBA, does that inspire the same effect? Not right now, but it's worth a shot."

Thanks to the assiduous PR efforts of the oath creators—some of them are budding marketers, after all—their project has garnered plenty of notice, from a largely adulatory article in The New York Times to skepticism from bloggers including Tom Lindmark, who wrote on Seeking Alpha, "Let's not just kid ourselves about how much difference it is going to make."

When asked about the criticisms of the oath—that it's too vague, for instance, or that the pledgers (about 50% of the graduating class) would probably have acted ethically anyway—another of the organizers lapsed unfortunately into PR speak, griping that "those sentiments show that the MBA profession is under fire" and offering this gem: "We can't predict what will happen." She also said that the pledge is "aspirational." (Which raises another question: Why is only half of the class, then, aspiring to act ethically? Do the others want to reserve the right not to act with utmost integrity? Do some think it's an empty gesture?)

The organizers don't intend for the pledge to be a onetime thing—say, a ritual at commencement—but the start of something bigger. They see it as entrée into a club of sorts. The organizers intend to create an online community where those who pledge can come to their peers anonymously with ethical dilemmas they encounter in the workplace.

Whether their plan ultimately works or not—another online community? really?—these Harvard students have started an important discussion about doing the right thing in business, which is never a bad conversation to have. And what struck me as I discussed the oath and the reaction to it with Anderson (full disclosure: an old friend of mine) was his tone. Near the end of our conversation, he said, "We don't have this all figured out. People say it's fluffy. What does it even mean when we say 'ethical'? Valid criticism, totally! We're just saying we're trying to be honest and not looking to screw you." It seemed remarkably like something that's been lacking in a lot of the business world lately—and something we could use more of: humility. —Jeff Chu

Thurs, June 04
Graduate
Harvard Commencement
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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