The Do-Good Disconnect

More MBA students are interested in social responsibility, but a well-paying job is more important, according to a new study

Although many MBA students say they want jobs that allow them to make meaningful societal contributions, most don't believe that corporate social responsibility makes a significant impact on a company's bottom line. That's one of several findings in a study of MBA student attitudes released Apr. 21 by the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education, a nonprofit that focuses on the relationship between business and society.

The study, which replicates a similar survey of MBA student attitudes conducted five years earlier, reflects the large-scale arrival of the so-called "millennial generation" into MBA programs and found that more students are looking for a job with the potential to make a contribution to society. But despite a growing interest in "giving back," students still said that finding a job with challenging and diverse responsibilities was the most important factor in choosing a job, with compensation another key factor.

Students also said they felt recruiters didn't place a high value on personal integrity or students' understanding of social issues. Additionally, 83% of students predicted that their values will conflict with what they are asked to do in business, yet only 45% said they are likely to voice their objections.

The Benefits of Corporate Citizenship

According to the survey of 1,943 MBA students at 15 top-ranked business schools in the U.S., Canada, and Britain, conducted last fall, 25% of MBAs are looking for a job with the potential to make a contribution to society, up from 15% in the Aspen Institute's 2002 survey. However, 63% said a challenging job was a key factor in looking for a position, and 49% said pay was a key factor.

Despite the students' emphasis on salary and job opportunities, "One of the most important findings is that MBA students are more alert to the hope that in their careers they can really make a positive contribution," said Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Business and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

The study found that students see the benefits of corporate citizenship in conventional ways, such as an improved public reputation, a more satisfied and productive workforce, greater customer loyalty, and a stronger community. They were less inclined to associate corporate citizenship with strategic business benefits, including increased revenue, fewer regulatory or legal problems, and reduced operating costs.

A New Search for Balance

Additionally, although both men and women may enter MBA programs with idealistic ambitions, the importance of finding a job with the potential to make a difference becomes less important by graduation day for men, while for women the change in attitude as graduation approaches is less significant.

The Aspen Institute findings reflect an important shift among students, said Daniel Diermeier, a Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management professor and director of the school's Ford Motor Co. Center for Global Citizenship. "It doesn't mean that material success and financial success are not important to them, but there is another goal in there now that needs to be balanced with those," said Diermeier, who didn't participate in the Aspen research.

Diermeier said the way today's MBAs structure their careers reflects this trend. "Many of them dip in and out of a typical corporate career and then they have a stint at a nonprofit, or they may be at [consulting firm] McKinsey but at the same time they serve on a nonprofit board, or they may be involved in setting up a socially responsible enterprise."

A Tension Between Business and Society

Typical of such students is Elizabeth Singleton, a second-year MBA student at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She worked at an international nonprofit before attending business school. When she started her post-MBA job search, she wanted to find a company where she could make a difference.

Singleton ultimately accepted a job in the sustainability program at Dow Chemical (DOW). "I was intrigued by the challenge of helping a company be a better company, one that was really committed to that [idea]."

Although many students have a desire to use markets and their future firms as forces for social progress, the study found that a tension still exists between doing well in business and doing good for society. For instance, 82% of MBAs saw an improved public image as a major benefit of corporate citizenship and 44% viewed such initiatives as producing a more satisfied and productive workforce. In contrast, only 12% believed that these practices could boost revenue, and 4% said that being socially responsible reduced operating costs.

Changing the Paradigm

That doesn't surprise Kellie McElhaney, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas. "Business schools and businesses aren't doing a good job convincing students that corporate responsibility pays, partially because the core faculty inside business schools isn't convinced yet that it pays," said McElhaney, who was not connected with the study.

Increasing communication about corporate social responsibility is essential to helping MBA students—and the general public—understand the connection between citizenship and profits, but according to McElhaney, corporations are hesitant to share data on how much these strategies increase sales or help grab market share away from competitors.

For McElhaney, the key to changing this paradigm is communication about finances. "My students understand it because I hammer this point home and I do talk about the data," she said. "If [students] see the financial connection, then they'll really start to understand and listen to the rest of it."

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