Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Do today’s MBA students care about the environment? You’d answer “no” if you took seriously a January BusinessWeek article by Derek Thompson, which was based on a recently released study by the communications consulting firm Hill & Knowlton.

BusinessWeek is an authoritative publication, with the largest U.S. circulation of any business magazine. But even if you can’t balance your checkbook and wouldn’t recognize a cash flow statement if one bit you, there’s no need to abandon common sense when reading the magazine.

The headline of Thompson’s piece reports the finding that “A good environmental reputation doesn’t make the grade when it comes to rating a company as a prospective new employer.” This assertion is based on the fact that “only 34 percent” of MBA students participating in the Hill & Knowlton survey consider a prospective employer’s “environmental or green policies” to be “‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important.” But “only” 34 percent? Doesn’t this figure support an opposite conclusion from the one the article trumpets?

Entrepreneurs and business managers are not like Buddhist monks, social workers, or diplomats. For businesspeople, profitability is always crucial to success. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously argued that generating profits is the only social responsibility of business (other than obeying the law). Or, in the often-quoted phrase of Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.” This may be an extreme formulation, but most corporate managers can still be sued by their shareholders if their operations show too much concern for public good over private gain. In this context, isn’t the real news not that MBAs think greed is good, but that fully a third of those surveyed think green is better?

Other elements of the Hill & Knowlton study also suggest MBAs care about environmental practices. For instance, many respondents said they would hesitate to work in the chemical, oil, or gas industries. Perhaps most remarkably, fully 32 percent said they would turn down an otherwise-attractive job offer solely because the firm that wants to hire them “does not seek to reduce its environmental impact.”

True, the MBAs surveyed generally rated a prospective employer’s eco-friendliness as less important than more traditional factors when choosing among job offers. But that’s no indication that their environmental views are tepid or insincere. Would you take a dead-end job, working for a boss who’s a jerk, at a poorly managed company that makes crappy products — just because the company’s environmental policies are progressive? (If you answered “yes,” consider writing a book called The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding a Job in Green Business. You’d probably make a lot of money.)

Even if the Hill & Knowlton study had shown unequivocally that the MBAs interviewed care little about the environment, that would hardly support universal conclusions. The 527 survey respondents came from a total of 12 business schools in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. But the 200 participating students from American schools were drawn from just four U.S. universities — leaving 402 accredited American MBA programs from which no students were interviewed.

Anyway, the information on students’ environmental attitudes was only one component of the study. Its main focus was on how the career choices of top MBAs are affected by prospective employers’ reputations — as well as what factors influence those reputations. (Hill & Knowlton is a PR firm; one unspoken subtext of the study seems to be that if you care about your company’s reputation, you might hire Hill & Knowlton to help improve it.)

The fact that the study asked specific, environmentally related questions at all may be a testament to the strong interest environmental issues actually have generated recently in the business community. The same widespread environmental interest may also explain BusinessWeek’s decision to frame its article about this study as an environmental story.

If you ask a few MBAs, they’ll likely tell you that much of the B-school curriculum is about applying common sense and adopting business jargon. Taking a lesson from Business 101, the next time you start reading a business article that spins data in a nonsensical fashion, you may want to reinvest your time more profitably. In some cases, the winning strategy may be to place the publication you’re reading at the bottom of the pile and read instead about Britney Spears until the dentist is ready to see you.