Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg Beta’s Roy Bahat asserted that most business schools aren’t teaching “the most important, underrated CEO skill of the future” — leading an organized workforce. Based on my personal experience and research I conducted this spring during my final quarter in business school, he’s absolutely right. This post summarizes the results of my research, a survey of what MBA students think about labor unions.
During my MBA, the only courses that tackled labor issues were two electives in Human Resources. When other classes discussed workers, they tended to focus on how to hire and retain so-called “A players.” All other workers, it seemed, were expendable inputs, cost items in a P&L statement.
This seems a major gap in our education, especially since our two-year program coincided with a pandemic that wreaked havoc on the world’s workforce, a “Great Resignation” that significantly altered the relationship between businesses and workers, and the greatest resurgence in labor organizing in decades, with workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple unionizing for the first time.
WHAT DO MBA STUDENTS THINK ABOUT LABOR?
Working with labor is a key responsibility of business leaders. How they handle that responsibility affects business performance and has a tangible impact on workers’ lives, with recent research showing that workers, particularly low-skill workers, earn lower wages when their companies are run by MBA graduates. If my classmates and I weren’t being prepared to handle this responsibility, what could be the consequences for the workforces we lead?
That concern motivated me to develop a survey to answer two key questions:
- What do MBA students think about organized labor?
- What role do MBA programs and other factors play in shaping their perspectives?
The survey, which more than 100 of my MBA classmates completed, asked students the extent to which they agree with various statements about labor unions — for example, Are unions good for workers? Do they make it harder to do business? Have they historically played a positive role in the U.S.? It also asked students to consider a hiring scenario in which there are two otherwise identical candidates, but one has experience as a labor organizer — who would they choose? Finally, the survey asked students questions about their personal background to help us understand what might be influencing their opinions.
Here were the key findings from the survey:
MBA programs contribute very little to students’ understanding and perceptions of unions. 86% of respondents either “Disagreed” or “Strongly disagreed” that their MBA had contributed to their understanding of unions.
Students tend to agree that unions are good for workers, but that they make it harder to do business. In other words, they perceive the interests of business and workers to be in tension.
Students expressed, on average, a strong preference not to hire a candidate with union experience over an otherwise identical candidate with no union experience. Even students who were otherwise supportive of unions preferred the non-union candidate. This reflects a sort of NIMBY-ism for labor unions amongst MBA students — many students responded that more unionization in general would be a good thing, but not at their company.
Students’ views on unions are shaped primarily by media and politics. When students were asked the top 3 influences on their views, 77% selected News/Media and 37% selected Political Identity. This is confirmed by our demographic data, where political affiliation was the strongest predictor of students’ views.
Less than 10% of students have themselves been a member of a union. Those who have that experience tended to have more favorable views towards unions.
CONCLUSIONS FROM THE RESEARCH
What can we conclude from this research? First, MBA programs must do more to contribute to their students’ understanding of unions and labor issues more broadly. These issues are critical to business leadership. Business leaders should be making decisions about their workforce on the basis of deep understanding and principle, above the influence of media and politics. MBA programs can and must prepare them to do that, both through classroom teaching and discussion and through exposure — for example, by bringing in speakers with labor organizing experience and admitting more candidates with those backgrounds.
A second conclusion — or rather fear — is that many MBA graduates are entering the business world with an antagonistic or zero-sum mindset towards workers. They see organized labor as good for workers but bad for business, and would prefer not to hire people with organizing experience. There has to be a path to a more constructive relationship. Business leaders should be seen as the champion, not the enemy, of workers.
It’s important to note that this survey represents a limited sample from a single business school, and the results should not be seen as conclusive or used to generalize about all MBA programs and students. Nor should this research be seen as a normative statement on unions, which are extremely heterogeneous. (The survey did not, for example, distinguish between public and private sector unions. Anecdotally, MBA students view them quite differently.)
My hope in sharing this research is threefold: that it stimulates a conversation about the role of MBA programs in addressing labor issues, encourages my fellow MBAs to consider their responsibility to labor, and inspires future research.
Lucas Levine is a recent graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. If you’re interested in learning more about his research or discussing the topic, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.