To Oath or Not to Oath

May 5, 2010

The Oath Project (www.oathproject.org) has strong ties to SOM. The Aspen Institute, whose Business and Society initiative is run by an SOM alumna, is an Oath Project partner. SOM annually has the largest contingent of students at the Net Impact conference, and Net Impact is another partner. So both organizations have looked to SOM to become an affiliate of the Oath Project, and to promote the Business Oath. But at least for now, we won’t.The Business Oath is an effort to professionalize business. Organizers point to the Hippocratic Oath and pledges lawyers take when joining the bar association as evidence that a code of conduct is part of what makes a profession. Given the recent questionable moral tactics of the finance industry, if not outright fraud, many have called for an oath for MBAs and business professionals as a means of promoting responsible behavior in business. The Aspen Institute, Net Impact, as well as several business schools and other organizations have developed a uniform oath they are encouraging business school students to sign. But SOM doesn’t commit to something lightly. Last week, I organized a town hall meeting to discuss the possibilities and limitations of the Business Oath. Some 60 students and half a dozen faculty, including Dean Oster, spent their lunch hour discussing the oath’s merits and risks. We didn’t reach a consensus, so we won’t join, nor formally oppose the Business Oath. Future classes may decide to take a stance, but for now, the conversation has begun, and individuals can sign or not as they see fit. In true SOM fashion, I was impressed with the interest and thoughtfulness my classmates brought to the conversation. Here are just some of the concerns and possibilities we thought of:

  • The Oath may be the start of a larger reformation of the profession to be more socially responsible. If so, SOM should participate wholeheartedly and push the conversation to a deeper attention on business ethics.
  • The Oath may give business schools and individuals a convenient way to demonstrate ethics without taking the more difficult steps to actually reform their curricula or businesses. If so, then signing might undermine SOM’s genuine commitment to developing “leaders for business and society.”
  • An Oath without some enforcement mechanism is empty, so what’s the point?
  • Those who sign an oath set themselves apart as somehow different from others, not placing enough emphasis on situational factors that make choices difficult. Individuals may feel falsely “inoculated” by the oath, leaving them less prepared to deal with situational challenges.
  • If SOM doesn’t participate, could this tarnish SOM’s reputation as a leader in ethical business if this becomes a trend in our field?
  • A “business” oath doesn’t apply to many SOM students who aspire to be leaders in non-business careers.

I look forward to seeing how the conversation continues with future SOM classes…

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Morgan Hall