Corruption will not be eradicated through legislation and prosecution alone. It will take a deep change in the values of the only individuals who can ultimately stop it: business leaders.

No matter how high the legal penalties may be, an opportunistic, self-interested manager within a large corporation can always find a way to make the pay-off of a bribe a no-brainer. This is so because the personal benefits of earning a contract can be significant and the probability of getting caught can be easily minimized. The very same factors that make the modern corporation so productive – specialization and localization of knowledge – also make it extremely difficult to control the decisions of each individual manager. The delegation of authority to managers with specialized knowledge makes the corporation vulnerable to decisions by those managers because they are often the only ones who understand the full complexity of a given contract (technical details of the products being sold, personal circumstances of the individuals involved in the transaction, dynamics of the social and institutional context in which the transaction takes place, etc).

When the golden opportunity presents itself to bribe, benefit from it and not get caught, the only thing that can stop him or her is a deeply engrained belief that the action is morally wrong.

We now understand that corruption distorts markets, taxes society regressively, undermines the rule of law and can eat away at democracy. Collective projects such as the Forum’s Partnership Against Corruption Initiative are essential in raising awareness among senior leaders of large corporations. However, to fully eradicate corruption we need a campaign to change the value systems of management teams around the world. That is the objective of The Oath Project.

Initiated by a group of Young Global Leaders, with the support and guidance of a number of business school thought leaders, The Oath Project “envisions a day when business leaders will hold themselves to the higher standard of integrity and service to society that is the hallmark of a true professional”. Our goal is to integrate the concepts of professional conduct and social responsibility into the culture, core values and day-to-day operations of academic institutions and corporations. The first step has been to articulate the principles that must govern the actions of any honourable business manager.

Our code, which has received the support of not only the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the Aspen Institute, but also academic associations such as PRME ((Principles for Responsible Management Education) and student organizations such as Net Impact, includes a direct reference to corruption: “I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.” Hundreds of managers have taken the oath, a few business schools have adopted it, and dozens of student chapters promote it each year in business schools around the world. We have worked also with a few corporations to find ways to integrate the oath into their internal culture.

But our work is still in its infancy and we face the gargantuan effort to undo decades of coordinated efforts by business schools, thought leaders and corporations to successfully impose a “profit-maximizing-is-all-that-matters” ethic. All help is welcome.

Author: Ángel Cabrera is President of George Mason University in Virginia and the former head of two business schools: IE Business School in Madrid and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. A member of the inaugural class of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, he co-founded The Oath Project and chaired the UN taskforce that created the Principles of Responsible Management Education. He is co-author of “Being Global: How to Think, Act and Lead in a Transformed World” (HBR Press).

 Photo Credit: Debra Wheat