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Management Ethics & Oaths Without Professionalization

Here’s a piece I wrote as part of a debate on the MBA Oath, in a recent Canadian Business magazine: The MBA oath helps remind graduates of their ethical obligations. In the article, I express the view that the MBA Oath, in its current incarnation, is “not a revolutionary thing, not a perfect thing, [but] […]

Here’s a piece I wrote as part of a debate on the MBA Oath, in a recent Canadian Business magazine: The MBA oath helps remind graduates of their ethical obligations.

In the article, I express the view that the MBA Oath, in its current incarnation, is “not a revolutionary thing, not a perfect thing, [but] definitely a good thing.” The real thrust of my defence of the Oath is that most of the criticisms of it are simply off-base. Critics either expect too much of a simple oath, or conversely underestimate the value of having people stand up and say “I promise.”

My conclusion:

But overall, the main problem with the MBA oath isn’t really a problem with the oath at all — it’s a problem with people’s expectations. Dismissive critics say that no oath will solve the deep and abiding moral problems that beset the world of business. That’s surely true, but no one could seriously have thought otherwise. It’s trite, but also true, to say that the world of business is increasingly complex. The ethical demands on business are higher than ever. In particular, business executives are called upon with increasing regularity to account for their actions and their policies, and to justify them to an increasing range of stakeholders. Add to that the enormous, lingering cultural rift regarding the proper role of corporations and markets. The MBA oath is of course not going to solve all of the ethical challenges that arise in such a context. Nor is it going to ensure that none of its signatories ever crosses the line into regrettable or disreputable or even disgraceful behaviour. But if given half a chance, the MBA oath might just turn out to play a small but not insignificant role in keeping the discussion alive.

Now, I do think there are some valid criticisms of the MBA Oath. One kind of criticism has to do with its content. I think, for example, that the Oath needs to be more clear regarding the balancing of the interests of various stakeholders. Note also that the current version of the Oath has MBA’s swearing not to engage in “business practices harmful to society”, a category so broa and contentious as to provide practically zero moral guidance.

But another set of criticisms has to do not with the Oath’s content, but with the its goals. At least some supporters of the Oath liken it to the Hippocratic Oath, and look to the day when Management can take its place alongside professions like Medicine, law, Accounting, and others. That, I think, is a mistake.

To see why, you can begin with this very recent piece by Ben W. Heineman, Jr., on his Harvard Business Review Blog: Management as a Profession: A Business Lawyer’s Critique.

Heineman’s focus isn’t on the question of oaths, but (as the title implies) on the question of professionalism more generally. He suggests that people who promote ethics in management by analogy to the professions misunderstand the nature of professionalism — and in particular, misunderstand his own profession, law. Heineman agrees that business schools face serious ethical questions. But, he says:

…these significant questions for business schools can be addressed without putting them in a context of the imperfect and potentially misleading analogy to legal professionalism

Another view on the question of professionalism is provided by Roger Martin (Dean of the Rotman School of Management), on his Harvard Business Review Blog: Management Is Not a Profession — But It Can Be Taught.

Martin points out two key characteristics of “the professions,” as those are traditionally understood. One is information asymmetry — basically, professionals like physicians and lawyers know stuff that their patients or clients generally do not. For example, I can of course look up basic facts of anatomy on Wikipedia, but it takes a trained dermatologist to tell me if that little bump is a harmless cyst or a potentially-deadly carcinoma.

The other element of professionalism that Martin points to is regulation. Information asymmetry is a problem in lots of industries, but only in some cases does it result in professionalization:

[When such a service]…is delivered by an identifiable individual practitioner, it tends to become a regulated profession. Doctors are regulated professionals because if they screw up, people die….

So, failure by identifiable individuals, says Martin, is the key:

The higher the cost of failure, the more likely the individual practice in question is to become a regulated profession.

That, he says, is why managers are unlikely every to be professionals in the narrow sense. For managers…

…[f]ailure is seen as the product of a team of managers doing a poor job in concert, rather than the product of one manager. Of course, CEOs get singled out for disproportionate blame. But the question is not whether being a CEO should be a profession but rather whether management should be a profession.

Of course, none of this is to say that managers can’t be expected to behave “like professionals” or to “conduct themselves in a professional manner,” in the looser sense of the word “professional.” The information asymmetry that exists between corporate managers and (for example) the company’s shareholders is very considerable, and it ought to be seen as bringing real responsibilities. The same goes for most front-line workers; lacking high-level business education and lacking direct access to the company’s books, they are left to trust senior managers to keep the company solvent in order to maintain job security. Being a manager may not make you a professional, but it is an awful lot like being a professional, in ethically-important ways. It is in that looser sense that the MBA Oath ought to be understood as seeking to instill in MBAs a sense of professionalism.

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(p.s. I blogged about this back in May of 2009: Harvard Students Take Ethics Pledge.)