Make Ethics an Entry Requirement for Business School? No.

Here’s an interesting blog entry, by by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz for Harvard Business School:
Make Ethics a B-School Admissions Requirement
Here’s the key paragraph:

In order to assure that the people they line up for positions of power do good for all stakeholders, business schools should drastically revamp their admissions processes. Schools should make sure that they admit a larger proportion of individuals with the right values in the first place. In my book, a demonstration of ethical values is more important than brilliant academic and even professional credentials. (Applicants come in with their values pretty fixed. You can’t hope to change people’s values by the time they reach graduate school, even if you can inspire them to reach for excellence.) Admissions committees should check to see whether applicants have in the past demonstrated altruistic values in practice – on the job, in their personal activities, in contributions to valuable social causes, and in community service. In order to correctly assess this evidence, proper interviews and reference checks should be a must before any final admission decision

Good idea in principle. And I can see the value of a certain amount of background-checking. A history of malfeasance — illegal activities, or ethical breaches such as plagiarism — could well be good grounds for denying someone admission. But I’m skeptical beyond that. But looking for candidates who have “demonstrated altruistic values in practice” is probably a bad idea. First, the goal of business isn’t (typically) altruism. Being altruistic isn’t a prerequisite for being a good manager. What you really want is things like:

  • Respect for the law (both the letter and the spirit).
  • Ability to work cooperatively.
  • Dedication to the idea of not using anti-social methods (e.g., fraud & deception) in pursuit of profits.

Ask yourself: how much can you really tell from a candidate’s record of “altruism?” What are you going to look for? Volunteer work? Lots of people do volunteer work for lots of reasons, not all of them noble. That’s not to deny the enormous contribution that volunteers make, in all kinds of organizations. It’s just to say that a history of altruism isn’t a reliable indicator of ethics.

Finally, what kinds of altruism are going to count? Large charitable donations? That signals wealth at least as much as it signals ethics. How about volunteer work for your least-favourite charitable organization? Will work for organizations on both sides of the abortion debate count as signals of ethics? Or the same-sex marriage debate? Or gun control? Or healthcare reform?

Before you sign on to the idea of screening for ethics, make sure you’re comfortable with the idea of someone other than you deciding what counts as ethical.

3 comments so far

  1. hartwomen on

    My goodness, there are so many reasons I agree with you on this one, I can barely begin to comment (at least, I agree with your disagreement, to say the least).
    If we start with your close, who shall determine what qualifies as “ethical behavior” of the applicants? Second, while applicants might come in with a fixed values system (not even sure I agree with that premise, but . . .), these are individuals who have not always had a great deal of opportunity to explore those values, to practice their application nor to fully understand the implications of that application. Is that not a purpose that faculty might serve, or a course in business ethics? And, in serving that purpose, might we (sorry, personalizing) not actually *educate* these students by helping them to achieve learning objectives in business ethics – helping them to move from point A to point B?
    I view that as part of my job, in fact . . .
    I could go on but will refrain. I have work to do (see above). Oh, but wait – there is a value in Fernández-Aráoz’ proposal – a boon to philanthropies, charitable causes and social needs worldwide since every high school student who wants to go to college will immediately strive to find a way to demonstrate service to the Nth degree . . .

  2. Heberto X. Peterson R. on

    We can suggest to use the “balance” used by Dionysus in the Aristophane’s tragedy “The Frogs”, when he has to decide which is the best poet between Euripides and Aeschylus. Why the example, because in these case you are sharing, ethics or moral behavior is extremely complex to measure. Is the conflict between moral duty (Euripides) that can promote some type of human actions vs heroism(Aeschylus), or the things that move humans to do things because they feel is the right thing to do, because it feels like it, not because is their duty.

    At the end Aeschylus win!!! Can we suggest Claudio Fernández search for these balance??

  3. Kevin Goodman on

    Well said. I imagine the likes of Maddoff and Alan Stanford seemed very altruistic to many. I do think it’s very important to teach ethics. Screening is wrong because the sincerity of actions can’t be ascertained. I think most business minded people have an intuitive sense of self-PR.

    I do on the other hand believe there is a universal ethic and ‘real’ leaders possess natural virtue. Leadership and character-virtue ethics are indistinguishable.

    All the best,

    < HREF="" REL="nofollow">KevinGoodman<>

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