Do Community Values Really Impact How Students Live their Lives?

Is HBS’s approach to Community Values an effective way of encouraging students to behave ethically or is Community Values just a waste of time?

I spoke with a number of people on campus who interact with students in a variety of settings to determine if students tend to behave in accordance with HBS Community Values. While the consensus was that HBS students are largely good, instances of inappropriate behavior speak to an undercurrent of elitism and condescension when students interact with people outside the bounds of the MBA program.

In thinking about how I might contribute to this issue of the Harbus, with its focus on HBS Community Values, I have struggled with a fairly fundamental question. Is HBS’s approach to Community Values an effective way of encouraging students to behave ethically, or is Community Values just a waste of time?

For starters, let me remind you what the HBS Community Values are. To be completely honest, even though I signed a form saying I would live by these values during pre-matriculation, even though these values are posted in every classroom on campus, and even though I have referred to these values multiple times in my role as an L&V rep, I have to look these up every time because I can never remember all of them:

-Respect for the rights, differences tag heuer replica for sale , and dignity of others.

-Honesty and integrity in dealing with all members of the community.

-Accountability for personal behavior.

With no disrespect intended to my fellow L&V reps, I question whether any of us could recite these three values if called to do so (though I am quite confident all of us could provide a rough approximation). Certainly, if an L&V rep (whose role is largely about promoting these values) struggles to articulate these values, what does that imply about how much these values really matter to students in their daily lives on campus?

In an attempt to gain more perspective on this issue, I spoke with a number of people on campus who interact with students in a variety of settings. Do students tend to behave in accordance with, or in violation of, these Community Values?

The consensus amongst the people I spoke with is that HBS students are, for the most part, good. John, who works in the U.S. Post Office in Spangler, says “Overall, I think [HBS students] get a bad rap in the eyes of the public. There are a good group of men and women here [at HBS]. A small percentage are high-maintenance. Everybody has a bad day; they may huff, or stomp their feet, or snap [at you], but you can tell when it’s a one-time incident. On occasion, they’ll come back and say ‘I was out of line’. It’s a rarity when it gets out of hand.”

In fact, HBS students can frequently go above and beyond in being kind to others in the community. From the Post Office to Shad to MBA Course Distribution, I heard descriptions of student behavior that went above and beyond: from the students who give bottles of wine as thanks for a favor, to the many letters sent praising Shad employees, to partners who bring pumpkin bread as thank-you gifts.

Jana Kierstead, Director MBA Career Services, concurs with John’s assessment. “On the whole, 95% of the student body acts appropriately 95% of the time. The extreme examples are not pervasive.” But, she notes that there are rare exceptions of misbehavior. “The issue is that when one student does something breitling superocean replica, it leaves a lasting memory and can create a reputation for a class that doesn’t deserve it” – for example, when a student reneged on a job offer after spending the signing bonus (the student’s alumni privileges were suspended until the signing bonus was repaid to the company), or when another student accepted a summer internship but never showed up for work (the student lost recruiting privileges while the company has never returned to recruit at HBS).

Kierstead also highlights an undercurrent of elitism in the behavior of some students. “When forty students sign up to a recruiting dinner and only twenty show up, when attendance at a career trek function drops at the last minute, or when students get up and leave a presentation early, it’s because students think no one will notice or that it won’t make a difference. In the mind of the recruiter, these behaviors are interpreted as an attitude of ‘my time is more important than your time.’ It’s the alum in the company who is encouraging the company to recruit at HBS, and when they get burned, it’s hard for them to hold recruiting spots open for HBS students.”

Tim Bove, who works both in MBA Course Distribution and at Shad, concurs: “Look, I understand that every one has a bad day sometimes, and the one-off incidents don’t bother me. It’s the patterns of behavior that are more concerning to me. HBS students represent themselves well in Spangler, but I also work in Shad. That’s where I witness behavior that would never occur in Spangler.”
When asked to clarify, Bove describes a condescending attitude some students can display in Shad, that is distinct and different from how they behave in Spangler. This behavior ranges from minor incidents where students throw locker keys down on the counter to major disputes over certain Shad policies. “There is an assumption that Shad staff doesn’t have a reason for making requests,” says Bove. “For example, we need people to be off the machines at 10pm for insurance reasons. A year ago, a student was asked to get off a bike at closing time but refused. The student asked for ‘just a few more minutes’ and would not leave. We try to be as accommodating as possible, but that behavior is elitism. The manager on duty had to go up to speak with them before the student would comply.” Bove notes, “Students wouldn’t treat Dean Light that way. There shouldn’t be a caste system when it comes to community values.”

Sometimes this elitist or condescending attitude can cross the line of decency. In researching this article, I was told of several instances where a student cursed at a member of HBS staff, or at a fellow student responsible for organizing an event. While none of the people I interviewed wanted to go on record describing a specific incident out of a desire to not cause further trouble, the instances described were not simple expressions of frustration (“this situation is shitty”) but instead were outright verbal attacks on an individual (“I think you are a f*#@ing a**hole”).

Learning about this range of behavior makes me wonder whether HBS is deluding itself in trying to push Community Values on students. Shouldn’t most of us know by the time we reach adulthood, years before we set foot on the HBS campus, how to be respectful, honest, and responsible? If a small percentage of students haven’t learned this by the time we arrive here (remember that the average age of an HBS student is twenty-seven, well into adulthood by any cultural standard you use), then why would two years in a classroom where “respect, honesty, and accountability” are posted on the wall change this kind of behavior? Other schools seem to think so: for example, the University of Michigan’s description of a course on Ethics of Corporate Management (as quoted by John C. Maxwell in his book “There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics”) reads: “This module is not concerned with the personal moral issues of honesty and truthfulness. It is assumed that the students at this university have already formed their own standards on these issues.”

An alternate perspective on the issue of whether Community Values is an effective means of upholding behavior can be found in a 2005 University of Toronto Magazine article entitled “Why Good People do Bad Things.” The author, Trevor Cole, suggests that business leaders who make ethically questionable decisions are influenced by the perceived behavior of others around them. A person surrounded by corruption is more likely to believe accepting a bribe is a justifiable behavior, since everyone else is doing it.
From this perspective, the HBS Community Values may matter more in our daily lives than w
e might otherwise assume. Certainly, no one I’ve talked to actively disagrees with the core tenents of respect, honesty, and accountability. We have all benefited from upholding these values in our sections and across our classes. It may well be that the reason why a small percentage of students sometimes fail to abide by Community Values is not in the values, but in the definition of community.

Of course any one of us can choose to be respectful, honest, and accountable to a community consisting only of ourselves. Nearly all of us can behave that way in the community of our sections or within the boundaries of the MBA program. But what about those parts of HBS that aren’t explicitly on the critical path to getting an HBS diploma, like Shad or the Post Office or a recruiting event? What about when we set foot off-campus, on the way to Hollidazzle or Newport? What about when we interact with people whom we may view as service providers rather than peers?
Ultimately, the question of whether HBS Community Values really impact how students live their lives comes down to individual choices each of us makes every day, in numerous interactions with many different people. How we choose to define our community and whom we choose to include in our definition of community will ultimately inform whether HBS Community Values are meaningful or meaningless.

February 19, 2008
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