A Hippocratic oath for managers — is it an idea whose time has come?

My first post of the new year expressed the hope of a new, better type of marketing inspired by social media and online communities: “Marketing that is truly transparent and honest, that acts with integrity — always.   …That will raise the title of ‘marketer’ in the public’s mind at least a few rungs up from its current ranking slightly above used car salesman as the grungiest, most lowly of professions.”

Apparently two professors at the Harvard Business School, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, share similar hopes.  In a visionary article entitled “The Reinvented Manager,” which appeared in the 1/2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, German Edition*, Khurana and Nohria make the case for transforming business management into a true profession, including a code of ethics and a supervisory body to oversee professional standards.  There would be an exam, like the bar exam all lawyers must pass in the United States, as a prerequisite to practice, and the overseeing organization would have power to censure individuals violating established standards of conduct.

The article is particularly topical in light of the recent excesses of the financial sector, but it reflects the same shift of outlook embodied by online communities, social media and the conversations taking place online thanks to web 2.0 tools.  It’s a shift that demands integrity, partnership and responsibility to the community from brands and businesses.

Here are some of the most interesting and thought-provoking perspectives from the article:

Over the past ten years there as been a decline in the self-control of, and ensuing trust in, business.  Managers have lost much legitimacy.  They will only regain society’s trust by rejecting the economic philosophy that management’s sole concern should be the maximization of shareholder value, while markets and government take care of the rest. (Milton Friedman be damned!)

Managers should serve a higher purpose — society as a whole.  They “should view society as their real customer and strive ultimately to provide society with sustainable businesses that create value.”

To the question whether codes of ethics are actually effective, the authors reference the American political scientist, Robert Axelrod.  According to the article, Axelrod has shown that a defined and unified ethical framework and shared professional ideals influence behavior decisively.  Khurana and Nohria  conclude that “Morally impeccable behavior is an important component of the self-image of professionals (like doctors and lawyers) and most will seek to preserve this sense of professional self.” (Doctors maybe. Not sure about lawyers.)  “We know from the social sciences that people’s actual behavior is strongly influenced by the expectations that are placed upon them.”

The authors go on to provide a draft for  a “Hippocratic Oath for Managers.”  This is my favorite part of the oath from a consumer-centric, social media point of view:

“I will undertake to represent my company’s performance correctly and transparently to all relevant parties, in order to make certain that investors, consumers (my italics) and the general public are able to make informed decisions.”

Khurana and Nohria elaborate on the challenges that the establishment of business management as a profession would face.  But they believe these can be overcome and their vision achieved.  Above all, they are convinced it is necessary, an idea whose time has come.  They don’t pretend that this would eradicate all marketing transgressions in future.  But they do argue convincingly that it could bring about a meaningful and worthwhile shift for the better.

*The original article appeared in Harvard Business Review, October 2008, under the title, “It’s Time to Make Management a True Profession.” Reprint or PDF available at Harvard Business Publishing.  Quoted passages are my translation from the German.



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3 responses to “A Hippocratic oath for managers — is it an idea whose time has come?

  1. Hi Steve,

    Do you think that the power of social, new, media will force businesses to behave better? Seems to me that they won’t be able to escape the pressures of all this instant information.

    And the first people I’d like to take an ethics test would be politicians!

    • Stephen Rothman

      Hi Susan. Yes. It already has and will do so even more in future. Not only because companies will be forced to. Many will realize it’s an opportunity not a threat. Comcast on Twitter is a case in point. Dell’s Idea Storm is another.

  2. Pingback: No surprise — trust in business takes a ten year dive « Steve’s Social Media Soapbox

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