The problem with MBA networking

‘Use the network’ is the business school mantra in tough economic times, but how ethical is it?

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A colleague here at the Financial Times is always rather relieved when recruiters return to business school campuses to hoover up MBAs. The reason is simple: she shares a name with an alumnus from a top European business school who also works in the media. When jobs are scarce, she receives phone calls and e-mails from unemployed graduates asking for help.

They want to know what sort of opportunities for MBAs are available at the FT. Who should they contact about getting a job? What background information could she give them that would benefit them in an interview? Some of the more ambitious students think she can help them get a job at Pearson, the FT’s parent company.

A few are particularly blunt: will she help them get a job? And some are particularly rude. “Just who are you?” one affronted MBA asked when she told him that she was in no position to help.

I do not imagine she is the only person placed in such a predicament. “Use the network” is the business school mantra in tough economic times. And students do. But how ethical is it? Just where do you draw the line?

As business schools drag themselves out of the recession – for which MBAs in high places have been roundly blamed – deans are promising that the future leaders they educate will be ethical, promote high moral standards and have character.

The highly ranked schools are those that espouse these views more than most. Yet one of the reasons that aspiring managers are prepared to pay so much to study at a top business school is access to the network.

In fact, analysis of the questionnaires completed by more than 9,000 alumni of the top MBA programmes in 2007 – those surveyed for the FT’s 2011 ranking – showed that networking was the third most important reason given for studying for an MBA, after increased earnings (the main reason) and the education itself. Networking, it seems, is more important than being promoted or changing jobs or careers.

It is also the goal most often achieved: 95 per cent of respondents who valued networking said it had worked.

Of course, at some level anyone who works for a reputable company will need to deal with the sort of dilemma my colleague faces as a matter of course – from the ambitious mother at the school gate who thinks two weeks’ work experience in a well-known company will do wonders for her reluctant son’s university application to the newsagent who, when he hands over your newspaper in the morning, explains that his nephew has been unemployed for more than a year and desperately needs a break.

Most companies, like the FT, should have all sorts of rules in place to prevent this kind of nepotism. Sorry, you say loudly, holding your head high, but your company only allows students on work experience if they meet certain criteria.

Things get a little stickier, though, if you know the person well. Just how far do you go to help a friend get a job? Provide the name of the human resources director? Yes, willingly. Write a character reference? Er, no.

The problem with MBA networking is that you have never even met the people who are asking for help. As my colleague points out, they are strangers. Does the fact that they went to the same university as you mean you should help them?

That is bad enough. But something more sinister is happening at some of the really big recruiters – the investment banks in particular. Groups of alumni working in the banks often take it upon themselves to coach MBA students from their alma mater who have applied for jobs there. Some even take time out – a Saturday, for example – to groom students for interviews, prep them on the appropriate answers and fill them in on the company background so that they can seem better informed.

Of course, not only does this give these graduates an unfair advantage, but it also prevents their peers from smaller or less well-known institutions from getting a foot on the ladder, no matter how talented they are. Perhaps more importantly, is recruiting people from similar backgrounds and with similar values good for a company? Or does it stifle critical thinking and change?

As for my colleague, she points out that there is at least one advantage to her non-existent MBA. She receives invitations to social events organised by the alumni association, and she says: “They certainly know how to party.”

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