In the latest "Using Your Platform for Good", we speak to Rob Chesnut, former chief ethics officer at Airbnb, about how to promote "intentional integrity"
The topic of “ethics” has recently received a lot of attention in the context of what is legal and what is unethical in light of misconduct by high-profile corporate leaders’ over the last few years. Indeed, according to a study conducted by PwC, 39% of the 89 CEOs who departed in 2018 “left for reasons related to unethical behavior stemming from allegations of sexual misconduct or ethical lapses connected to things like fraud, bribery, and insider trading.”
In many corporations, the General Counsel governs the organization’s ethics program, as this area has emerged as an area of heightened risk due to media’s increased scrutiny and reporting of unethical behaviors of corporate leaders and organizations. This was the case for former Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb, Rob Chesnut, who in 2016 was serving as the company’s General Counsel. Chesnut created the company’s first multifaceted ethics program; and as a result, was appointed to the Chief Ethics Officer role in the fall of 2019. He has documented his approach towards ethics in organizations in his upcoming new book, Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution, which is set for release in July.
Chesnut says he saw the need for an intentional focus on embedding ethics and integrity into the culture at Airbnb when Uber’s problems emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Airbnb already had a code of ethics, which every employee was required to certify that they had read, but Chesnut knew it was not enough. With the support of his CEO, he embarked on creating a more robust integrity program, focusing on discussing ethical situations that contain a lot of gray area in a “very human way and with a lot of specificity,” he explains.
The “6 Cs” approach to integrity
In his new book, Intentional Integrity, Chesnut describes how he organized Airbnb’s integrity program around six concepts that begin with the letter C and recommends all organizations to adopt the 6 Cs in their organization when launching their ethics and integrity program.
- Chief: buy-in from the top
- Customized code of ethics
- Communicating the code
- Clear reporting system
- Constant drumbeat
Chief: Buy-in from the Top
The most critical element of Chesnut’s approach to integrity and ethics is getting buy-in from the CEO on an ethics program within an organization since CEOs set the tone at the top. Chesnut highlights the need by not only the company’s chief leader, but also the chief executive team to support the program and embody it in every action the executives take. “If your CEO doesn’t really care about this, then you’re wasting your time,” he notes.
Customized Code of Ethics
Companies need a customized code of ethics to be written in the company’s “own words, language, and values and mission,” Chesnut says. At Airbnb, this idea was framed around the concept of belonging and named Integrity Belongs Here because the company’s purpose and mission are centered around creating belonging in the world.
To construct a code of ethics, he explains it’s essential to pull together a team of people and collect different perspectives on rules. This will create cross-functional buy-in and bring in diverse perspectives to develop the fundamental principles reflecting the organization’s values and mission in the code of ethics. Through this process, Chesnut generated an ethics code for Airbnb that reflected “the way that we treat each other to generate belonging in the workplace to help get the best out of all of us.”
Communicating the Code
Communication is the next key to implementing the integrity program across the company, Chesnut says, adding that he designed an interactive session for the new employee orientation program around 15 ethical situations. Topics include appropriate touching at work — hugs, handshakes, etc. — and alcohol consumption. “Intentional integrity is about having an open, honest conversation with people about the way that you should act in the workplace,” he states.
Ensuring that there are consequences for violation is the next fundamental tenet of Chesnut’s ethics structure. This element dictates the need for a fair investigative process to examine the facts of the complaint, penalties for violations, and the rules for equal enforcement.
Clear Reporting System
The fifth “C,” a clear reporting system, provides instructions on the transparent process by which people can report a potential ethics violation. Usually, this entails (at a minimum) having a reporting hotline staffed by an impartial third-party provider. This approach assures employees that they can report irregularities in complete confidence without the need to reveal their identity unless they choose to do so.
The final piece of the framework is the constant drumbeat — the need to continually embed ethics within the culture of the organization. In particular, it is vital to prioritize ethics in every significant leadership decision that is made and to discuss in internal communications how the ethical viewpoint is the lens through which decisions are made at the company.
Integrity amid COVID-19
During times of crisis, everyone’s actions and words — especially those of leaders — are under a magnifying glass. In Chesnut’s words, these “times of crisis reveal character” and the integrity of leaders.
He explains that showing existing and former employers that the company cares about them is critical when organizations have to make tough choices. Unfortunately, in early May, Airbnb laid off 25% of its workforce, and it too had to make tough choices. Before having to make these hard decisions, the executive leadership took a thoughtful approach to the company’s difficult times by communicating with full transparency the economic state of affairs to all employees.
However, when more drastic actions were necessary, the company separated with its employees through actions that demonstrated care and empathy towards them. First, recruiters were repurposed to help people find new jobs; and healthcare coverage was extended to exiting employees for a year because the company knew that healthcare was something that would be important for departing staff during the pandemic. Finally, people were allowed to keep their laptops for job searches.
Treating departing colleagues with compassion strengthens the morale of those who did not lose their jobs and may experience some level of survivor’s guilt. “Those that are staying will remember how their friends and colleagues were treated in a time like this,” Chesnut says, adding that he does not doubt that this experience will impact Airbnb positively going forward with high employee sentiment during times when large-scale reductions in workforce commonly decimate employee morale.
Given that this pandemic will last longer than anticipated, more companies will have similar crises and tough decisions ahead. Companies and corporate leaders should consider these six C’s and the importance of integrity as they evaluate challenging decisions in their road ahead.