Can MBAs remain honest in a world that rewards bad behaviour?


Hult President, Stephen Hodges, and Professor John Beck ask this pertinent question in a recent article – ‘The problem of Dodginess’. MBAs have often been blamed for crossing the line of what’s ethical and business schools have responded by incorporating ethics into their curriculum but rarely has anyone addressed the contribution of the environment these students finally operate in, in creating dodgy situations. Workplaces today often reward greed, encourage bad behavior, which is often couched as aggressiveness, and are sometimes openly corrupt. Leaving aside knowing what is right from wrong in the classroom, the brave article explores what to do when you face a corrupt or negative workplace. 

The article opens with a situation one might have seen in a Hollywood flick. Unfortunately, it’s the author’s real life experience at consulting firm Accenture:

When I was an Associate Partner at Accenture, my boss asked me to interview a potential new hire for our think tank. The interviewee was nice enough, but I thought we could do a lot better. I didn’t think he had many new thoughts—and that seemed like a prerequisite for a think tank. I wrote up my assessment and sent it in.

My boss landed on me like a ton of bricks. “How dare you write that? Now there is no chance we can hire him!”

“But do we want to hire him?” was my naïve reply. “I’m sure we can find better people.” 

“I want to hire him and your write up has gone to HR and they won’t hire him based on your interview notes.” 

Granted, I had not known that my boss felt that strongly about this candidate. But even if I had, I assumed that the organization as a whole would want my honest appraisal of the candidate.

Apparently no one was really interested in that. (And here I will shift into passive voice to avoid repercussions…) I was directed to rewrite my interview report and avow that I had submitted the wrong report in the first place. I was told that if I didn’t give a glowing review of this candidate, I would be fired—and at that time I had a young family and really needed a job.

I rewrote my evaluation; the guy was hired. As it turned out, I was not wrong in my initial assessment. 

– John

Exploring the talk around ethics in many organisations which never translates into real action the author’s say: 

This was one of John’s early, formative experiences with “dodginess.” Most companies say they want everyone to report unethical behavior, but in practice many really mean, “Do what the boss tells you to do.” Speaking out even once can be a job-ending offense. And above all, “play nice.”

The author’s go onto explore the dilemma business schools find themselves in preparing students for such realities:

How can (business schools) prepare students for a world where dissembling and blame-avoidance are two surefire ways of getting ahead in almost any organization? Should professors teach about the ideal or the real world of business? And if it is the real world of business that teachers opt to teach, how can they, in good conscience, tell their charges to always be honest?

In a slice into the surreal aspects of MBA education the author’s share how many MBAs know long before they graduate the hollowness of any pledge to remain honest:

Many schools now ask their graduates to sign an integrity promise. But some MBAs refuse to sign an oath, noting that promises like “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner” may keep them from serving their shareholders well.

But what happens to people who have a stronger moral compass? 

John reports a particular career pattern among the most integrity-focused of his former students—they drop out of the corporate world. They become entrepreneurs or teachers, or run small, non-profit charities. Some have told him that they cannot make the compromises that seem to be required of large organizations.

The ‘solution’ the authors share is in all probability not going to very helpful for people caught in such a situation. The solution proffered does not solve the dilemma, as much as it reminds one of the consequences of remaining honest – which would be the starting point for finding a solution for most people in such a situation.

Nevertheless, there is something nice about the ‘solution’. Sometimes, when an answer to an ethical dilemma is not forthcoming, a reminder that you are not the only one facing the dilemma can provide one the strength to choose what is right. That might well be in the case here – in extremely rousing words, the authors say the pride of being a part of the honest brigade is worth the crap that will come your way. The words do have a way of reinstating faith in the right path for anyone debating the way forward. 

Here is our joint “ethical” solution to the problem. With all the integrity we can muster, here is what we want to say to our students past and present:

Always tell the absolute truth as you see it. Point out when someone else is dissembling. Challenge corner-cutting and solutions that make money at the expense of truth. But know that you may make more enemies than friends in your company; you may have trouble keeping a job; you will be marginalized. Don’t expect bonuses, promotions or “attaboys.” You may not earn quite as much money in your life. But you will earn the respect (sometimes begrudgingly) of many. You will be able to sleep at night. You will end up with something no amount of money in the world can buy: your own self-respect and the satisfaction that you stuck to your guns when those around you were pressuring you to do anything but. And, as very small recompense for all your hardship: we will be proud of you.


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