Promises, promises: the MBA oath

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in June 2009

400 words / 2 min.
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An interesting new drive for greater ethical behaviour in the business environment.

Note: this post is from 2009. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Engraving of Hippocrates by Peter Paul Rubens,...
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An interesting new drive for greater ethical behaviour in the business environment:

The ethics of business were on the minds of a group of students who’ve just received their master’s degrees from Harvard Business School. They’ve mounted a campaign to have graduating students take what they call the “MBA Oath.” It’s modeled after the medical profession’s Hippocratic oath.

via MBA ‘Hippocratic’ Oath Aims For Ethical Business : NPR.

The Economist has a more detailed article discussing the oath:

They did not actually say that “greed is not good,” but the oath taken on June 3rd by more than 400 students graduating from Harvard Business School amounted to much the same thing. At an unofficial ceremony the day before they received their MBAs, the students promised they would, among other things, “serve the greater good,” “act with the utmost integrity” and guard against “decisions and behaviour that advance my own narrow ambitions, but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.”

via A Hippocratic oath for managers: Forswearing greed | The Economist.

The medical profession already has such an oath, along with an enforceable code of ethics (unethical behavior will get your medical license pulled). The legal profession, as far as I know, has no oath, but has a very strict set of ethical rules that vary by state – violate the codes of professional responsibility, and you may be disbarred or suspended from practice.

To my mind, it is this enforcement component that gives ethical guidelines their teeth. Will an oath, however well-intentioned, actually result in better behavior absent any enforcement? I suspect not, although I do nevertheless think – in the spirit of evolution vs. revolution – that this is nevertheless a positive step toward more responsible business behavior.