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In the fall of 2000, Harvard’s Office of Career Services banned McKinsey and Company from recruiting on campus for one year. This would be the only recruiting ban in this century of Harvard College’s history — at least no other records of recruiting bans exist in The Crimson archives since 1982. So what did McKinsey do to warrant this largely unprecedented action?
Was it on par with their plan to “turbocharge” opioid sales, which they settled this year for nearly $600 million and one commentator called the “corporate equivalent of manslaughter”? Or was it as bad as their recommendations to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement on how to best starve migrant detainees (which even some ICE personnel found too extreme to consider implementing)? Perhaps it was related to their advising authoritarian governments on how to crack down on dissidents? Could articles such as “How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class,” which was published in the Atlantic, have resulted in such a ban?
If you guessed McKinsey’s long history of socially destructive behavior was the reason Harvard banned them for a year, you’d be wrong. In reality, Harvard banned McKinsey for not recruiting on campus. Yes, you read that right.
In the fall of 1999, to Harvard’s dismay, McKinsey decided to break tradition and take its recruiting off campus. Their reason was Harvard simply didn’t have enough facilities for them to interview all of the students that were qualified. When McKinsey informed Harvard of their plans too late, the Office of Career Services was left with empty rooms and not enough time to find companies to fill them.
Given that Harvard has been willing to temporarily ban a company for creating a few empty rooms, Harvard should also be willing to temporarily ban companies for repeated, flagrant, and extraordinarily large-scale social harms.
It’s time for Harvard to ban McKinsey, again. There is a clear public record of 47 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, and five territories collectively suing McKinsey for turbocharging opioid sales, a massive resultant settlement, as well as numerous works of investigative journalism into McKinsey’s various other acts of malfeasance. Knowing this, Harvard should enforce a penalty, whether it be a one- or two-year ban on on-campus recruiting, or perhaps even longer.
Harvard facilitates access to top talent and, whether the University sees it this way or not, it is essentially endorsing groups by welcoming them to campus and facilitating warm introductions between employers and students.
The strongest censure of an unethical company is a ban, and the next step is greater access to information.
Harvard investigates other behaviors. For example, it has an Administrative Board and an Office of Gender Equity that lead investigations, make judgments, and enforce penalties. Harvard has clear expectations of students and faculty and has bodies to ensure these standards are met. Similarly, OCS expects companies to pay them $500 a semester and follow basic hiring rules such as not serving alcohol, not discriminating against or sexually harassing students, and not making exploding offers.
Essentially, Harvard protects its students while they are on campus yet has nothing to say when the companies that they invite to campus and introduce to students later abuse those students as graduates and deeply harm society.
Harvard needs a new body associated with OCS that compiles information about the social impact and workplace environment of every company that hires more than one student per year and that shares this dossier with students before they go into campus interviews.
Information worth compiling includes clear public records of wrongdoing, fines and settlements, works of investigative journalism, and reports of abuse by Harvard alumni and peers as well as what the company has to say about itself. Students could be hired through a work-study program to build this collection of knowledge alongside faculty and OCS staff. If the findings are sufficiently abhorrent, a committee would decide on an appropriate penalty.
More perfect information would protect Harvard students from workplace abuse and channel Harvard students’ talents towards work with less negative social outcomes and greater positive impact. For example, every student entering an interview with Goldman Sachs would know beforehand that a recent self-selected survey of first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs found “workplace abuse.”
Students would know that on average those surveyed worked 105 hours in the last week and one respondent reports “consistent 9am-5am’s.” They’d also know that those surveyed saw their average self-reported mental health drop from 8.8 to 2.8 out of 10 and their physical health drop from 9.0 to 2.3 from before to after starting the job.
Regardless of the fact that they are making close to $100,000 a year or more through salaries and bonuses, the abusive treatment found in the survey is unacceptable. At the very least Harvard should inform students what they’re getting themselves into before actively introducing Goldman Sachs to them every year.
In the end, a ban will not prevent students from joining companies like McKinsey. And that’s not the point. In fact, in 2000, student interest was unaffected when McKinsey was banned from on-campus recruiting. Students that wish to join banned organizations need only walk to a local hotel to meet them. Nonetheless, bans matter. Bans say that Harvard cannot afford to be associated with such companies and cannot conscionably facilitate interactions between them and their students.
Ultimately, once companies know that the social harms and employee mistreatment they perpetuate will rapidly be shown to future recruits, they may think twice about business decisions that harm society and their employees. Standards need to be set and Harvard’s Office of Career Services should lead the way.
Nicholas S. Brown ’23 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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