In the past, MBA graduates went out into the world vowing to do whatever was necessary to claw their way to the top. Now they are pledging to work for "sustainable prosperity" and promising never to put their own ambitions ahead of those of their companies.
Business school students are lining up to sign a new MBA Oath that commits them to pursuing their careers with honesty and integrity. They are pledging to "develop both myself and other managers under my supervision so that the profession continues to grow and contribute to the wellbeing of society" and pay equal attention to "shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate".
The oath was created by a group of Harvard students in 2009, but has been taken up around the US, and in countries from India to South Africa. Up to 1,600 students have sworn the oath so far, including half of Harvard's class of 2009. In the UK, only students from Oxford's Saïd Business School have signed up in significant numbers.
Critics say such a pledge is naïve and unenforceable, but the oath is garnering attention as a public renunciation of the winner-takes-all capitalism that led to last year's financial collapse. It is also being seen in some quarters as a desperate attempt to rescue the image of go-getting MBAs.
John Curle, 30, an American who has just gained his MBA from Oxford, signed it because it echoed his beliefs. "I felt it was important to express my opinions and how I felt," he says. "I pretty much agreed with all it said. As for it being unenforceable, you can say that about almost any promise you make. I took one as a certified public accountant, but plenty of accountants don't hold to it in the work they do. I just feel this is something that will help me be more conscious of my decisions."
Many of the oath's ideas come from two Harvard professors, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, who argue that management should be a profession like medicine or law with proper qualifications and a clear code of practice. Some commentators, however, feel that it is unlikely such high-mindedness will hold out against the pressures of the business world. Others go further, saying that only those with an "MBA mindset" could see the need to make a formal pledge to act with integrity and consideration, and that the oath is simply business education trying justify its own existence.
Huw Morris, dean of the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and chair of the Association of Business Schools' ethics committee, points out that the oath has grown directly out of the particular culture of Harvard, where ethics and values have been actively debated in recent years, and where in 2006 Larry Summers was forced to resign as university president after saying he thought women's abilities differed from men's.
But anything that encourages people to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it is a probably good thing, provided "too much analysis doesn't lead to paralysis", says Morris. "Everyone needs to be aware of the social and environmental consequences of what they are doing and there is now a consensus that such ethical issues are very important. People are aware of them and concerned about them."
At Cranfield School of Management, MBA students have already discussed the oath. "Some were enthusiastic, some deeply cynical, and some felt there was a cultural issue here and they personally weren't happy with a public declaration," says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility. "In America, where they have the Pledge of Allegiance, there's a rather different view of these things. But I'm in favour of anything that helps people question the purpose of business – is it for shareholder value, or for the wider society?"
According to Charlie Wilkinson, the MBA director of The Business School at the Bournemouth University, an MBA should support the ideal of ethical practice. "Many business decisions are likely to have ethical dimensions, and managers must develop their appreciation of how these can be recognised and resolved," he says. "Whether or not an oath will have any impact on decisions or behaviour is a matter for the individual. If an oath helps a manager to behave ethically, then it's a good thing. I don't think that oaths are daft, provided that they have meaning for the individuals concerned, but I would prefer to think that the managers will act ethically out of their innate respect for humanitarian values."
But business schools are being pushed to play a bigger role in helping to develop those supposedly "innate" values. Most schools offer modules in ethics but these issues are gravitating from the periphery of MBA courses to their core in a growing number of institutions. In a world facing climate change, pollution, depleted resources and financial uncertainty, the schools understand that students' wishes and the market are forcing change.
For the oath to have value, says Joan Fontrodona, director of business ethics at IESE Business School in Spain, it must be linked to this movement. "On its own an oath might be charged with emotional commitment and goodwill but if it is not put into practice, its meaning is only superficial," she says. "Signing an oath would have more meaning at the end of a process, like closing a deal by signing a contract. In this case, the process for business schools would be incorporating ethics into the MBA curriculum, not just by adding a couple of courses on business ethics but by changing each course to have an ethical perspective." IESE, he says, is already doing this.
The oath originally started out as a class project, to mark the 100-year anniversary of Harvard Business School, but has mushroomed into a movement that is asking questions worldwide on what business is about.
"Whether you need the mechanism of an oath is questionable. But at least let's engage with it," says Grayson.