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Are You Ready to Take an Ethics Oath-and Will it Make a Difference?

November 4, 2009

Updated: October 30, 2013

Montreal 1 I remember being a Scout while growing up in Montreal during the 1960s. I made my share of promises: “I promise to do my best…”

As an adult with 35-plus years in the workforce I’ve never had to take a corporate oath or promise, nor did I have to do so after earning two Master’s degrees. But all we needed was the firestorm of the 2008-09 financial crisis, embedded with highly corrupt practices followed by a slew of new financial regulations, to spark the introduction of student-sponsored oaths at business schools. Why business schools, in particular MBA graduates? Well, they were singled out by some as being major contributors to the financial crisis.

Management guru Henry Mintzberg of McGill University has railed against MBA programs for years, arguing that graduates are not prepared to work in leadership positions. The over-reliance on theory and case studies in MBA programs produces analysts who have no real sense of how the business world works, not how leadership is practiced. Mintzberg is not along in his opinions. In fact, MBA programs around North America began a few years ago to integrate leadership into their curricula.

And then the financial meltdown struck. Perhaps Mintzberg is being overly critical, but he has referred to the monumental failure of management, with business schools being “perpetrators of the mess.” Maybe so. But other educators have lined up behind Mintzberg. The most recent innovation (I’m being generous with the use of this word) has been the entry of student-sponsored oaths.

As with any new product, service or corporate process, some people get pretty buzzed. Just recall fads such as Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering or Self-Directed Teams. Now we’re witnessing an attempt to install some form of ethical behavior in new business grads by taking an oath. Think it will make a difference? Don’t put your money on it.

A better approach may be what some business schools are doing by interviewing face-to-face prospective students. This is not a foolproof process, of course. But at least it helps weed out individuals who may not possess the core values a business school is seeking to emphasize. By the time you’re in your early twenties your value system is already established. If your aim in life is to maximize your personal gain at the expense of others, then taking an oath when you graduate with a MBA is a complete waste of time—and a joke. One 2006 study found that over 50% of MBA students admitted to cheating, higher than any other discipline. The view of those cheating was that everyone else is doing it.

Ben W. Heineman, who teaches at Harvard’s law and international relations school, noted in the Harvard Business Review: “Oaths (and codes) are empty, even hypocritical rhetoric if they’re not backed up by more.” Indeed.

So what’s Generation Y to make of this new fad? Unfortunately, they’re being led into this by what I’ll call the Baby Boomer Fadsters who embrace new hollow fads without reservation, similar to the way Starbucks cranks out new forms of lattés. My advice to Gen Y is to remember that actions always speak louder than words. Don’t get sucked into the vortex of believing that just because you swear an oath that you’ve now developed a bullet-proof ethical skin. Creating personal integrity is not about reciting a few paragraphs.

If you’d like to learn more about what new MBA grads are promising to do–or not to do–check out the following sampling of oaths from U.S. and Canadian universities. In the meantime, I’ll stick with my old Scout promise—it meant something.

The Harvard 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 create 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 choices that are not easy for me and others. 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 behaviour 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 honour.

The Telfer School of Management (University of Ottawa) oath:
As a manager, my actions will affect the well-being of all stakeholders; accordingly, I will strive to create and sustain value over the long term while maintaining a commitment to social, ethical and global values.
I will be responsible to all stakeholders, and this will include employees, shareholders, customers, the community in which I operate, and all those that may be affected by my actions.
I will act with integrity and respect in all my dealings, making transparency paramount and demanding the same in return.
I will allow neither ego nor malice to play a role in my decision-making process.
I will conduct my activities in an environmentally sustainable manner, and will consider the true societal costs when making investment and operating decisions.
I will maintain the same care and vigilance when dealing with public money as I would if it were my own.
I will obey and uphold local and international laws wherever and with whomever I engage in commercial activities with, whether personally or on behalf of a corporate, government, or non-profit entity.
I will similarly oppose corruption and any dishonest practices whether or not prohibited by local or international law.
I will accept and take responsibility for my actions, honestly and without exception.
I pledge to perpetuate the text and spirit of this oath to those present, to my classmates, my community, and my world.
We, the Telfer MBA Class of 2009 hereby take this oath, as professional managers:

Richard Ivey School of Business (University of Western Ontario):
I, (name), standing before my mentors and my peers, commit myself to venerate the traditions, reputation and integrity of the practice of business. I accept entry into an exclusive network of Ivey Business School Alumni.
I acknowledge the responsibilities and value the benefits of being a member of such an association.
I will, to the best of my ability, act honourably and ethically in all my dealings, in the belief and knowledge that doing so will lead to a greater good.
I will express my ideas and opinions openly and without reservation, so long as they do not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others, whoever they may be.
I will endeavour to act with moral clarity, grace and nobility.
I understand that I am now a member of a distinguished community. I will strive to uphold the standing of the community, with special obligation placed on encouraging and championing the pursuits of my fellow members.
I will acknowledge my limitations and my mistakes so that I may learn from them.
I will continue to seek new knowledge, never resting on past wisdom or successes.
Above all, I will aspire to make a positive contribution to my society.
I promise to uphold the traditions, integrity and high standards set by those alumni that came before me. I promise this to myself, my family, my fellow alumni and my school.
I accept this Ivey pledge freely and upon my honour.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 9:15 pm

    Very interesting article. The discussion of an oath of ethics has come up in my graduate classes as well. I believe that anyone capable of completing a college degree (graduate or undergraduate) should be able to function at a high ethical level without having to take an oath. It saddens me that our society does not seem to value ethical decisions anymore…

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