Corporate Oaths: “I’ll Be Good, I Swear”

Can taking an oath make corporate executives more ethical?  Yes, according to some speakers at the Economist’s recent Corporate Citizenship Conference “Doing Well by Doing Good.”  They hold that responsible citizenship at the corporate level starts with strong personal values.

Stanford University Law School Lecturer Chip Pitts told conference participants, “Society needs individuals who exhibit integrity and consistency in their behavior at their work place and their church, synagogue or non-profit organization.”

“This conversation starts with self,” echoed Jeff Swartz, President and CEO of Timberland. “By blaming CEOs and banks, we miss the opportunity to take personal accountability for our personal actions.”’

Oath of Honor
Economist US Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief Matt Bishop and other panelists pointed hopefully to the small but growing interest in a management oath among the nation’s business schools. In 2005, the Thunderbird School of Global Management adopted a professional Oath of Honor which is taken by students upon graduation.  From the TBird website: “The oath was drafted by the student-run Thunderbird Honor Council after their president Dr. Angel Cabrera (also an Economist conference speaker) challenged the students to be the first business school to establish an oath that would guide them during their business careers.”

In early 2009, a group led by Harvard Business School students created the MBA Oath, which was signed by more than half the HBS graduating class of 2009 and another 1,000 other business school students from MBA programs across the globe.

So far, nearly a dozen other versions of an oath have emerged. To develop consensus around a single oath, a global group of stakeholders formed The Oath Project.  Project members include the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, the MBA Oath, the Aspen Institute, the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education, the UN Global Compact, and the Association of Professionals in Business Management.   The Oath is currently at the final draft stage and could be finalized by the end of 2010.

Proponents of the oath see it as a rite of passage, a tradition for incoming doctors, lawyers, and other professional trades, which holds incoming leaders to “the higher standard of integrity and service to society that is the hallmark of a true professional.”

Beyond an Oath
Advocates of the oath counter skeptics by admitting that an oath alone isn’t enough to ensure moral behavior.  Cabrera sees the oath as one component in a broader effort to professionalize the management profession.

Carbrera’s stance is supported by INSEAD Professor of Ethics and Social Responsibility N. Craig Smith who writes that an oath “should form part of a broader initiative to strengthen attention to ethics and values, including greater attention to ethics in programme applicant selection criteria, as well as throughout the curriculum.”

In one more encouraging sign, more than two hundred business schools from around the world have voluntarily endorsed the Principles of Responsible Management Education, a movement sponsored by the United Nations that promotes a view of business as contributing to a “sustainable and inclusive global economy.”

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

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