2009-10: The New Ethics in B-schools

The NY Times published a must-read article for MBA applicants and potential applicants, the implications of which point to some changes in this year’s new application questions. I’ll make some predictions here and we can see how well I do this summer when MBA programs start to release their 2009-10 questions.

Here is the link.

Also here:


The lead in to the article is that some of the people most heavily criticized recently for their roles/performance/behavior during this global economic crisis of ours came from top MBA programs. In fact, the article names names in the very first paragraph. Interestingly, it doesn’t say where they studied, but that’s easy enough to Google.

John Thain – final chairman and CEO of Merill Lynch – HBS
Richard Fuld – final chairman and CEO of Lehman Bros. – NYU Stern
Stanley O'Neal - former President, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Merill Lynch – HBS
Vikram Pandit – CEO of Citigroup – Columbia

The article also mentions John Paulson (President of Paulson and Co. – HBS), but he has actually profited enormously from the downturn.

A few years ago, after the accounting scandals at Enron, Worldcom and their cancerous ilk, the role of ethics in business schools came into sharp focus, with the number of schools asking ethics-related questions jumping sharply. Now, those questions are almost nowhere to be found among the applications of top schools, or at least they are not being asked directly. My feeling is that, for obvious reasons, schools realized there was limited value in asking, essentially, whether applicants had ever lied or cheated to get ahead in business.

The difference between those scandals, which were largely contained within the US, and the current global economic meltdown, is that this time the perpetrators weren’t just some greedy corporate officers and spineless accountants. Apparently, everyone was complicit – consumers, regulators, and of course business people.

My prediction is that we will see a return of ethics-related questions, but they won’t be as simple or direct as they once were. A typical ethics question used to go something like this:

Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma? If so, how did you handle it?

I believe the “new ethics” questions will be more subtle and more broad. They will inquire not only about taking a stand against the crowd, but also about how applicants have worked to benefit society. Among top schools this year, I think Chicago was the earliest in touching on these topics in what I predict will be a strong trend.

a) Have you ever made a decision that caused you to go against popular opinion? Please describe that situation and your rationale for your decision. b) Did you feel at any point that people misperceived your motives? Explain. c) In retrospect, how do you think an MBA from Chicago Booth would have affected your decision?

And with MIT’s announcement late last year of a new ethics training program for all incoming students, I would definitely expect an ethics question from them in some form or another. Other schools will almost certainly follow. Not only will such questions help schools address the perceived (fairly or not) lack of ethics among business people, but if asked correctly, such questions will also serve to distinguish truly exceptional candidates from within what will probably be an even more competitive applicant pool.