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How Likely are HBS Students to Take a Stand?

We recently polled RC students to see how they might react in three hypothetical situations where other HBS students might be behaving inappropriately. What respondents were not told, and what most did not know, was that these situations were based on real-life events from HBS’s past. Comparing what students said they would do (in the poll) to actual observed behavior paints a sobering picture.

As an integral part of the HBS experience, the case study is designed to let students place themselves in the shoes of a protagonist facing a challenging situation or a difficult decision. However, our exposure to case studies is almost exclusively in an academic context, focusing on some core principle of strategy or elucidating a particularly complex financial concept. Even in the context of LEAD or LCA, case studies tend to focus on extraordinary situations that we may face five or ten years after graduation. As a result, HBS students are rarely asked to consider situations that we might face in our daily lives on campus.

We recently polled RC students to see how they might react in three hypothetical situations where other HBS students might be behaving inappropriately (see sidebar on page 4). What respondents were not told, and what most did not know, was that these situations were based on real-life events from HBS’s past. If you believe that actions speak louder than words, comparing what students said they would do (in the poll) to actual observed behavior paints a sobering picture. HBS students, it seems, are less likely to stand up against inappropriate behavior by their peers than they believe they will.

One scenario described an incident where a group of HBS students attending a black-tie event at the New England Aquarium enter the penguin enclosure. A 1998 Inc Magazine article reports that such an incident did occur in the class of 1992, when students “decided to jump into the penguin pool.” Fully half of the students polled indicated they would ask the students to stop or call security. While details on the actual incident are hard to come by given that it occurred some sixteen years ago, New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse confirms that the incident did occur, and that students either were ineffective at stopping their peers from engaging in such behavior, or did not choose to intervene at all.
In fact, roughly 5% of poll respondents were amused by the behavior described in this scenario, and indicated they would laugh, take pictures, or join the group (or all three). Their reaction is instructive, suggesting that HBS students don’t always stop to consider the potential consequences of their actions.

LaCasse notes that “the offending person was thrown out of the event” and further, that the incident “did create a legacy of reluctance to host HBS parties. If we have them, we generally require extra security, place restrictions on the bar and have events wrap up by midnight. It is hard to believe that a graduate program would need this, but clearly abuse of alcohol can make the smartest people to exceptionally stupid, self-absorbed things. That person put those penguins and the responding staff at risk. Our staff treats these animals like they are family. Such bizarre behavior [on the part of the HBS student] can only be interpreted [by the penguins] as a threat.”

Another scenario described a situation where students were passing sexually explicit notes in class. Two-thirds of poll respondents indicated they would intervene, either directly or indirectly. In fact, the same 1998 Inc Magazine article reports in depth on a real-life incident, in which several instances of sexual harassment began with the passing of such notes in section and resulted in tearful pleas to section-mates, inappropriate touching, and ultimately, sanctions against six students.

Troublingly, this article describes the initial student responses to inappropriate behavior as a “halting attempt” and implies that the number of students who did intervene were in the distinct minority rather than a two-thirds majority.

Admittedly, these two scenarios refer to student actions that took place over a decade ago. HBS has evolved since then, with more emphasis on community values and more messaging to students about the importance of upholding the HBS reputation (for example, in career services presentations). The broader business world has also evolved. Even a cynic would acknowledge that today’s business environment is more politically-correct — even if individuals are no more enlightened on why some behaviors are inappropriate, they are at least are more aware of the potential consequences of engaging in such behavior. Certainly, the HBS I have experienced as a student has been vastly more supportive and respectful than the HBS of these scenarios from the 1990s. So it is perhaps unfair to compare what today’s students say they would do in a given situation to what their predecessors actually did in that situation.
However, one scenario described in the poll is based on a much more recent event. The scenario described an incident where a group of HBS students on a bus to an off-campus HBS dance reputedly became verbally abusive towards the bus driver. Amongst our poll takers, a large minority (roughly 4 in 10 respondents) indicated they would intervene and ask the verbally abusive students to stop.

In fact, a very similar incident took place during the 2006 Halloween dance, in which no students chose to intervene. Many ECs will recall an email sent by Joe Badaracco alluding to this incident, and a subsequent Harbus article on the incident. As described in the Harbus article, the bus “spent approximately forty-five minutes driving through various neighborhoods surrounding the party site without reaching it. The increasingly frustrated students began shouting at the driver and questioning his competence and professionalism. As the driver continued to flounder, the comments and chants became louder and more personal.the comments apparently did not include any epithets related to race, gender or national origin. After reaching the destination and disembarking, some students stayed behind to apologize to the driver.”

To be fair, many poll respondents were honest about the fact that they would not intervene in these situations: between one-quarter and one-half of students indicate they would likely do nothing or wait for someone else to act in these situations. Some indicated they don’t believe they should be responsible for policing the behavior of other adults; some wanted to collect more information on the situation before acting. The fact that many students were made uncomfortable by the behavior of their peers on the bus, and the fact that some students did stay behind to apologize to the driver (though notably not those students who were responsible for the comments) show that many students do abide by community values in their daily lives.

What this event calls into question, however, is how far we will or won’t go to uphold values we believe in. If one in four of us believes we would intervene in such a situation, but not one of us on a crowded bus does so, we may be less willing to take a stand than we would prefer to think.

February 19, 2008
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