September 10, 2013 5 min read

About six months ago, I learned that the most important characteristic corporate executives want from business school graduates is “integrity.” Since then, I’ve spent a part of every day thinking about how integrity can – or should – be taught in business schools. I hit a practical wall every time.

Let me start with a story. 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 job 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 to this job 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.

This was one of my early, formative experiences with integrity in companies. More often than not, when business people use the word “integrity” (which everyone agrees is a good thing), many really mean “follow the rules” or “do what the boss tells you to do.”  On television and in movies, we all have seen the fictionalized police forces where lying for a fellow cop—even if the officer is doing something illegal—is more honorable than telling the truth.   And so it seems to be within all organizations (law-enforcement or not). The rule is: support the leadership and your comrades even if their ideas and actions are completely wrongheaded.  Speaking out too often or too loudly is definitely a job-ending offense.  Above all “play nice.”

How can that be integrity? 

So how can a business school prepare students better for the reality of that kind of organizational life?  Is it possible for MBA programs to create a whole new generation of corporate leaders for whom “integrity” means unyielding truth and honesty?  How can that be done in 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, how can a business teacher, in good conscience, tell their charges to always be honest? These are the questions that have been buzzing about my brain for months now. To no avail.  But I am not alone in this predicament.

Three decades ago, Harvard settled on an unsettling solution to the problem of integrity in business education. I was a student at Harvard Business School when John Shad donated $20 million to support more courses on ethics.  Shad had been SEC Chairman and thought business people needed a new culture to curb the abuses that he had seen on Wall Street during the 1980s.  I remember at the time, faculty members wondered aloud how they could possibly spend that much money on ethics: maybe develop a new course? Write some new case studies? Publish software to explore ethical issues?  Eventually, the school built a 118,000-square-foot ultra-luxurious fitness center—mostly for visiting executive education participants—and called it Shad Hall.  The relationship to ethics? Working out together builds camaraderie, we were told.

For the last decade, the “solution” to the business school integrity teaching problem—and not a bad one—has been to punt the problem back to the students themselves.  Many schools now ask their graduates to sign an integrity promise.  This is designed to guide business professionals through their careers as the Hippocratic Oath is meant to guide doctors.  But some MBAs refuse to sign the 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.  Sometimes, lying and subterfuge are part of business—particularly in a highly competitive world and with an obligation for making the most money possible. (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-august-12-2009/mba-ethics-oath)

In a memorable study more than a decade ago, a Miami University professor, James Sterns and his Ball State colleague, Shaheen Borna, surveyed minimum security prisoners and compared their responses to MBA students in 11 different programs around the US.  The authors concluded that there was not much difference between the answers given by the two populations—in fact, in many cases, the inmates offered the more “ethical” answers.

Please do not think I am saying that every business person is a bad egg.  That is not true.  However,  I have noticed a particular career pattern among the most integrity-focused of my former students—they drop out of the corporate world.  They become entrepreneurs or teachers or run small, non-profit charities.  Some have told me that they cannot make the compromises that seem to be required of them in large organizations.

Well, here is my “ethical” solution to the problem. With all the integrity I can muster, here is what I want to say to my 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 will make more enemies than friends in your company; you will have troubles 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: I will be proud of you.

But, sadly, the truth is: I don’t think mine is the advice anyone wants to get or give in today’s business world—or in business school.

(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)