BU Today

Campus Life

MBA Ethics Oath Draws Handful of GSM Signers

Future business leaders vow to do the right thing


Professor Douglas Hall says ethical behavior trumps signing the MBA oath of ethics for many students. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The notion of “business ethics” seems so oxymoronic after Wall Street’s recent shenanigans that an MBA oath of ethics, adopted by management and business schools in the last year, was mercilessly skewered shortly after its inception by The Daily Show. Among BU’s Graduate School of Management students and alumni, just 14 have signed the oath, which originated at the Harvard Business School. (Told by a professor that business schools have taught ethics for decades, the Daily Show interviewer earnestly asks, “Would you say you’re good at your job?”)

The Daily Show’s antics might not be amusing Santiago Gomez (GSM’11, GRS’11), one of the GSM students and alumni who’ve signed the oath. When he read that Harvard Business School students had drafted a voluntary pledge of moral conduct, Gomez heard echoes of the values statement he had admired at McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm where he worked before attending GSM. He believes the oath makes sense, particularly given the number of students at the school not looking to get rich.

“Almost a third of current MBA students are interested in nonprofit or social venture careers,” he says. “A lot of my peers are taking nonpaid internships because they want to help and support new ventures or local nonprofits that do not have the resources to pay for them.” Gomez himself hopes to work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or another international group promoting social and economic development.

Its Ivy League authors drafted the oath a year ago, when the financial crisis and headlines about the crimes and misdeeds of Wall Street’s Bernie Madoff and others had everyone from MBAs to liberal arts types wondering if the industry could be rescued from the soiled hands of the corrupt. Since then, almost 3,000 signatories from business schools around the country have taken the oath, which obliges signers, among other things, to “refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.” Two of the Harvard creators turned out a book explaining their brainchild.

The MBA Council, GSM’s student government, held a town hall–style forum about the oath last November. “We discussed several options, including pledging to the current oath, creating our own, agreeing to it at Commencement, or doing nothing,” says Tyler Altrup (GSM’10), council president. Facing “tepid student interest,” he says, the council settled for publicizing the oath and letting students sign individually if they wished.

Why more GSM students haven’t signed depends on whom you ask. Gomez attributes the anemic response to ignorance about the oath’s existence, even after last November’s informational get-together. “I am certain that if someone was to create a BU chapter, we will have hundreds of signers immediately,” he says.

But it may be that students, whatever their values, don’t see the need for an oath. “I just don’t think it’s that salient one way or the other for a lot of people,” says Douglas T. Hall, the Morton H. and Charlotte Friedman Professor in Management. For students, “keeping their everyday actions aligned with their values is more important to them than a formal oath.”

Hall nevertheless considers the pledge a worthy springboard for discussion. “Values and ethics are tremendously important for our MBA students,” he says.

Gomez thinks that GSM could do more in this area. The school has a mandatory ethics course, but it focuses more on laws than on ethical dilemmas confronting business, he says. “I believe that BU has still a long way to go at changing the curriculum to reflect this societal need.”

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


3 Comments on MBA Ethics Oath Draws Handful of GSM Signers

  • Anonymous on 06.07.2010 at 10:13 am

    Everyone "tepid", welcome to the status quo


    The MBA council hekd a meeting, and …

    Facing “tepid student interest,” he says, the council settled for publicizing the oath and letting students sign individually if they wished.

    – – –

    Douglas T. Hal. doesn’t seem to think it is a major issue

    – – –

    BU Today doesn’t seem to think it is a major issue, reporting the news a month after commencement.

    – – –

    The school has a mandatory course that “focuses more on laws than on ethical dilemmas.”

    This fits in well with the Securities Industry and Banking Industry workplaces, where employees spent 1 hour a year in a mandated review of the corporate ethics policy.

    – – – Bottom Line – – –

    Sounds like noone really is prepared to work had for change – most people are content with the status quo.

    Prepare to see the same problems again in 2015, and 2019, and 2025. But maybe not in America, this country is rapidly becoming irrelevant due to corporate ‘ethics’

  • Molly Brown on 06.07.2010 at 11:28 pm

    Integrity, Honor and Determination

    I would like to respectfully disagree that the low number of BU MBA students who chose to sign the pledge is an indication of no one being prepared to work for change and being content with the status quo. To paraphrase Prof. Hall, “Actions are louder than words.” As a very recent grad of the BU MBA program, I can speak first hand about the integrity, honor, and determination of my classmates. Many of my classmates came to BU’s MBA program because they wanted to initiate change – whether on a small or large scale. They will be able to affect positive change on the world whether or not they choose to press “Like” on the Facebook page of the MBA Oath.

  • Anonymous on 06.08.2010 at 12:03 pm

    re: Integrity, Honor and Determination

    I don’t doubt your personal Integrity, Honor and Determination. I agree that “Actions speak louder than words.” I also believe “No one gets rewarded for good intentions.” Until an action is actually taken, all you have is good intentions. Medical Doctors often don’t feel the need to take the Hypocratic Oath, as they have every intention of helping people, yet … the oath matters. It is a concrete reminder to Doctors of their commitment, and an industry-wide standard that people believe they can hold Doctors accoutable to uphold. … The oath matters…. I am old enough to have been directly cheated by public accountants and suffered from the bad advice of public accountants… I am old enough to have heard, again and again, ‘our industry doesn’t need regulation, we can regulate ourselves’ and a few years later a preventable abuse was not prevented by regulation. I have heard the false promises of politicians, but the WORST politicians are the ones not even willing to make the promises they don’t intend to keep… The biggest social lesson from the unrest of the late 60s and 70s is that public words and determined actions make a lot more of a difference than quiet, honorable behaviour.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)