Nation & World

Some HBS students adopt ethical code

5 min read

“True professions have codes of conduct,” wrote Harvard Business School (HBS) professors Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article. At the end of Class Day exercises (June 3), approximately half of the 886 graduating HBS students took the professors’ comments seriously enough to sign a managerial version of the Hippocratic oath, pledging to manage the companies they work for in a way that safeguards not just the interests of stakeholders, but of fellow employees, customers, and the larger society in which they function.

Max Anderson, a George Leadership Fellow who has just completed his final year in a joint-degree program at HBS and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), spearheaded the effort to craft and build support for the “MBA Oath.” When a colleague responded enthusiastically, Anderson began to research similar oaths already in use at other business schools such as Columbia and Thunderbird. He and 32 other graduating joint-degree and M.B.A. students worked together to create a pledge that “takes the best from these other oaths and adds our own flavor,” Anderson said.

“Once the project was up and running, I spoke about it at the end-of-year dinner for the George Fellows,” Anderson continued. “Seventeen of this year’s George Fellows eventually signed on, and many of them played key roles in promoting support for the oath. Without question, our involvement in the joint-degree program with HKS and the George Fellowship gave this idea real momentum. I think we saw it as a natural extension of the cocurricular conversations we’ve had this year.”

The George Leadership Fellows program, established through a foundation started by HBS professor and former chairman of Medtronic Bill George and his wife, Penny, annually selects 20 joint M.B.A.-M.P.P. students in the final year of their degree work. The George Fellows’ monthly program, designed by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, includes discussions with senior executives from the public and private sectors about ethical leadership and multisector careers.

Among the specific promises included in the HBS oath are the pledges to represent the performance and risks of the business accurately and honestly and to hold oneself and one’s colleagues mutually accountable for living by the oath. Interestingly, noted Brian Elliot, another George Fellow who has accepted a job at the social enterprise Endeavor, the oath makes no mention of any particular sector whatsoever. “Rather, people who take the oath are committing themselves to make ethical decisions in whichever sector they find themselves.”

“M.B.A.s definitely need to rebrand themselves,” said Anderson, citing recent polls documenting how far the public’s trust in business managers has fallen. “But the oath is about more than changing perceptions. It’s about changing behavior and changing the business culture from ‘looking out for No. 1’ to recognizing that we’re all in this together.”

Maura Sullivan, another George Fellow who was instrumental in garnering support for the oath — more than 750 M.B.A.s from Harvard and elsewhere have signed it — will begin working in PepsiCo’s leadership development program this fall. “Pepsi is an $80 billion company that affects the lives of numerous people and communities. Why shouldn’t that responsibility be taken as seriously as the Hippocratic oath a doctor takes? Figuring out how far that responsibility goes or what specifically it entails is rarely a black-and-white issue. But business leaders need to let the public know that they’re committed to managing those tensions to the best of their ability.

“It’s not legally binding, but the symbolism of the oath is important,” added Sullivan, a captain in the Marine Corps. “In the military, every time you’re promoted, you take a new oath — in front of other people who will help hold you accountable.”

Harvard Business School’s ‘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 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.