Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ethics pledges, business schools, and the financial crisis

With all the talk recently of greedy bankers and guilty fraudsters, some people have been looking to business schools as a potential source of some of the problems. The New York Times recently published a stinging criticism highlighting the failure of schools to focus their students' skills and attention on anything more than short term shareholder value. Not surprisingly, it generated a lot of attention, not only in the business school community, but also among the broader readership of the paper.

Obviously schools can not be wholly to blame for sowing the seeds of the financial crisis, but the points made about the inattention to ethics and social responsibility in many MBA programs are well made. Things are changing, but there are still only a few schools (among which we'd count our own) where such critical issues have become deeply and meaningfully embedded in the curriculum. Students meanwhile have demonstrated that they are increasingly attentive to social and environmental issues. Survey evidence, growing course enrollments, and escalating membership of student clubs and competitions around CSR issues are all testament to that. Another way that this has started to surface though is in the emergence of "ethics pledges" - a growing phenomenon, particularly in the USA.

Emanating originally from Bentley University in the USA, the ‘Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility’ is perhaps the best known of these pledges. It is based around a pledge to ‘to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job’ that signers might consider, and commits signers ‘to try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which [they] work.’ The initiative’s website enables potential organizers to learn about how to organize on-campus campaigns, and to download posters, wallet cards, and other resources. So basically, the pledge is about sticking to your values, regardless of the various pressures or seductions of the workplace. Of course, making career choices can be hard when you want to make a difference in society. What if a potential employer seems to be offering you a great position but you’re not convinced that it shares your values? The ethics pledge aims to help students navigate these tough choices while keeping their commitments to ethics and social responsibility intact.

More than a hundred schools and colleges are using the pledge, but other initiatives have also emerged including the ‘Shanghai Consensus’ pledge organized by the China-Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, and for business leaders, the ‘Business Ethics Pledge’, which begins ‘I pledge allegiance, in my heart and soul, to the concepts of honesty, integrity, and quality in business.’ Unlike the other alternatives, the Business Ethics Pledge even allows you to sign electronically and start advertising your business on-line as a signatory.

As might be expected, such pledges have been particularly popular in North America and, to a lesser extent China and Taiwan, reflecting perhaps the focus in such cultures on individual level agency in business ethics. Those who subscribe to such initiatives clearly believe in the importance of personal integrity and of the power of individuals to make a difference. As the Business Ethics Pledge founder, Shel Horowitz says, ‘This is about changing the world! About creating a climate where businesses are expected to behave ethically, and where executives who try to drag their companies into the unethical swamplands find that nobody's willing to carry out their orders.’

We're not wholly convinced by this - especially since so many of the problems we're seeing today are not so much the result of individual miscreants (well, OK, maybe Bernie Madoff could have done with keeping to a decent pledge), but because of deeper level structural issues in financial markets, governance and remuneration systems, and regulatory problems. But still, when the focus of attention is so much on changing the culture of business, a good old fashioned pledge of allegiance may not be such a bad idea. After all, you've got to start somewhere. And it will certainly show those business schools that've been slow to get their ethics education together that their students mean business. Just not business at any cost.


  1. Interesting idea, I wonder if it has any effect on the students though. If offered a lot of money, I think anyone would have to go against the pledge. Nevertheless, sounds like a great idea.

    Take care, Julie

  2. Hey, guys, thanks so much for including my Business Ethics Pledge in your roundup. Howebver, the link you have is not correct and comes up 404. It should be (yours somehow got jammed into Blogger' URLs.

    Nice to run into people covering the same subject area. Let's talk about how we can cooperate.

    Shel Horowitz,

  3. Hi Gentlemen,

    Interesting blog. As someone old enough to remember the messianic fervor that accompanied the mission statement mania of a decade or so back, I'm afraid I have look on these pledges with a jaundiced eye.

    You'll recall how mission statements were supposed to unite the enterprise, set a standard and lead, in the fullness of time, to a business that was better in every way. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if you check you'll see that Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Citi, AIG and their peers all had beautifully crafted mission and vision statements that spoke to integrity, transparency, accountability, putting customers/shareholders first. And you can see how well that worked out for them (and for the rest of us).

    So, I would be delighted to be proved wrong in my cynicism, but I won't be holding my breath.

    - Eric


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