Welcome to FNEI Insights, a new series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. To kick off this feature, we talked to Rob Chesnut, former chief ethics officer and general counsel at Airbnb, about how companies can create a culture more focused on integrity, something he highlights in his new book, “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead An Ethical Revolution.”
“Host new employee orientations” isn’t typically part of a general counsel’s job description. Yet that’s just what Rob Chesnut did to encourage transparency and ethics at Airbnb, introducing new employees to the company’s culture by teaching a one-hour class on values.
“I think people are going to talk about their company and ethics-related issues no matter what. The question is: are they going to do it cynically online — on places like Glassdoor and social media — or are they going to hear about it in conversations with their leadership directly?” he said, noting he was inspired by CEO Meg Whitman, who led similar discussions with employees at eBay. “I think the latter is far more powerful.”
The Power of “Integrity Moments”
Rob used the time with new hires to go over what he calls “integrity moments” — real-life situations such as conflicts of interest, relationships with coworkers, and alcohol — and ways to handle them. After one of his sessions, a woman came up to him with tears in her eyes, confiding she had dealt with a manager propositioning her at a previous position. She didn’t trust her former employer and ultimately decided to leave her job.
“She told me, ‘It means the world to me Airbnb did this. I wish more companies would have this conversation,’” he said. “And that was the kind of reaction I got. They did blind surveys at the end of the week … 25 classes as part of orientation. It was the number-one-ranked class, week after week.”
Rob took this successful model on the road, sharing it with Airbnb’s offices worldwide, ensuring that everyone was on the same page.
“I believe that integrity is contagious. So is a lack of integrity. If people see things going on around them that aren’t right … cutting corners ethically, and the like … it gives them implicit permission to do the same,” he said. “I think the message has got to be, ‘We’re changing, we are stepping up, this is really important.’ If I hear that and I believe it and see the first steps being taken, that tells me I’ve got to raise my game, too.”
Employees as Ethics Advisors
In addition to incorporating intentional integrity into orientations, Airbnb wanted to create an everyday work environment where employees felt comfortable raising ethical questions.
“People are often scared of lawyers and general counsel. They don’t want to go to HR,” he said. “So how do you create an environment where you can still find out what’s on people’s minds and what issues are?”
Airbnb decided to invite its employees to take an active role in shaping the company culture as “ethics advisors.”
“What we found is people are a lot more comfortable going to someone in their local office or on their team to ask a question. In the first quarter of this year, we probably had nearly 100 inquiries from ethics advisors. Most of those would have never come to light if we had just had some hotline buried somewhere on the internet. It makes people feel proud to feel like they are spokespeople for ethics,” he said. “Now we’ve got dozens of people who want to become ethics advisors. And I like that. You don’t want one chief ethics officer, you want 5,000.”
It’s Never Too Late to Make Ethics Central to Your Culture
For corporations with a history of ethical issues, it’s not too late. Rob offered some guidelines on where to start.
“You need to send a very clear direct message to everyone acknowledging that things might have been done a certain way in the past, and they were wrong,” said Rob, who has discussed this challenge with Dan Arieli, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University who studies lying. “The company needs to change direction, show self-awareness about how things got off course. And communicate a clear, unequivocal commitment to change; talk about exactly what you’re going to do.”
Implementation is the hardest — and most important part — of the process.
“With diversity, equity, and inclusion you can’t just form a committee, staff it with people of color and say, ‘Well, thank goodness we solved that problem,’” he added. “It takes some real work, some real thought to not only become a more diverse culture but also to become a culture where your diverse employees feel that they’re included and empowered.”
According to Rob, implementation often fails because businesses typically rely on materials and methods that are ineffective or outsourced. No one really reads the tiny type on the HR posters in the breakroom. Training videos made by third parties rarely resonate with staff.
“A lot of companies call their law firm and say, ‘Give me a code of ethics.’ Or worse, they go online, they copy somebody else’s code. Put their own company name at the top and then email it out to everyone and say ‘Here’s a new code of ethics. Check a box saying you read it.’ ... Well, that doesn’t do anything. That may send a message of compliance, but it doesn’t really say that integrity’s really important.”
Inspired by what he learned at Airbnb, Rob knew he had to write “Intentional Integrity” and help more companies.
“What really inspired me was saying, ‘Well if you put a little effort into it, what if integrity really did matter? Would you do it that way?’” he said. “It’s not hard, it’s not expensive, and if leadership buys into wanting to operate with integrity, I think you can run a company in a different way that makes it a much better place to work and actually a more successful financial company.”
Leading Companies with “Integrity” Cultures
Rob admires companies out there who are really recognizing conscious consumerism and ensuring their business aligns with the values of the people who work there and who want to buy from them. He cites Microsoft, Apple, and Etsy as good examples to follow.
“Etsy found for a cost of about 1 cent per transaction, they could make the entire platform carbon neutral. And when they told people about it at check out, business went up. So they not only did the right thing for their communities and the world, but they actually improved their business numbers by doing the right thing for the environment,” he said.
“I’m not convinced that the government, with all of its partisan politics, can be counted on to do it right. I want companies to step up. I’m hoping my book sends a positive message to companies that we can do better, and we can really make a difference with a little effort.”
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