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How To Build A Culture Of Integrity: A Conversation With Airbnb’s Chief Ethics Officer, Rob Chesnut

Tim covers how organizations can build a culture of integrity with Airbnb’s Chief Ethics Officer, Rob Chesnut. Listen to the episode here!

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Audio Transcription:

Tim Reitsma

Just because an organization has integrity written down as one of their values doesn’t mean they actually operate in this way. There are countless stories of companies who say they operate with integrity. They make the news for doing something the very opposite. My guest today, Rob Chesnut, author of Intentional Integrity, is currently the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. He spent his early career at the U.S. Justice Department and then moved over to eBay, where Rob was responsible for overseeing all site rules and policies for the eBay global community of over 150 million users. He joined Airbnb in 2016 and has helped lead and guide the organization to drive ethics throughout Airbnb. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for tuning in. I’m Tim Reitsma, the resident host of People Managing People. Welcome to the podcast. We’re people managing people and we want to lead and manage better. We’re owners, founders, entrepreneurs, we’re middle managers, we’re team leaders, we’re managing people. 

Tim Reitsma

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Tim Reitsma

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Tim Reitsma

Welcome to the podcast, Rob. It is such a pleasure to have you on as a guest today. And for our listeners, Rob Chesnut. He is the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. And yeah, just thanks for joining the podcast today. 

Rob Chesnut

That’s good. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. And so why don’t you just take a couple of minutes and walk us through your journey as to how do you end up at Airbnb? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, it’s been a long journey. I was growing up in Virginia and after I got out of law school, I was a federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia for a number of years. I used to prosecute drug dealers and bank robbers and even spies back in the old days. And I think fortunately for me, there was a small little company in Northern Virginia that I noticed when I was a prosecutor called AOL. And AOL interested me. I was getting a lot of calls about it. So I took a bit of interest and plugged, you know, my phone line into the back of my computer and use their desk and was sort of an early Internet adopter as a result of that.

And while using the Internet, I stumbled across eBay, really just fell in love with what eBay was doing and sent them an email one day, told them I thought that they could use somebody to work on fraud, illegal items, and regulatory matters. And they sent me a note back the next day. I was working for eBay a month later out in California. I was an early employee. I think I was an employee one hundred and seventy and I spent 10 years at the company.

And I think my experience at eBay was really interesting to the folks at Airbnb ultimately, you know, in between I worked at, I was the general counsel of a company called Chegg. But Airbnb called and needed a new general counsel. So I became the general counsel of Airbnb a little over four years ago. And while general counsel took a strong interest in integrity and ethics as a way of building the company’s brand and protecting the company against a number of the problems that I was seeing other companies had. So that’s where I am. That’s right. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for walking us through that journey, going from federal prosecutor into a tech company early on as the eBay, I think. How is that transition for you going from like government to private tech? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, you know, I was probably the prosecutor is fine, but it’s a very negative job. It is. It was troubling to me putting so many young people away for so many years. What I really yearned to do was something more positive, something where I could promote connections with people, promote small businesses. So I was really enthusiastic about making a shift in my life at that point. And it’s certainly, obviously very different being a federal prosecutor in Virginia to being an early employee at a tech company.

But I have come to believe that companies can play a powerful role in changing the world and helping solve a lot of the world’s biggest problems. If companies are willing to step up and take on the responsibility of working on some of society’s biggest problems, that government can be a little discouraging at times. A lot of bureaucracy and politics companies, you can get things done. So I actually don’t have any regrets. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, no, thanks for that. I think, is making that transition and also that realization going from more of that negative side to wanting to promote positive and make a difference. And that’s you know, it in your book, which will we’ll talk about here in a minute. 

Tim Reitsma

You talk a lot about the early days at eBay for yourself as well as others in the organization which led you to Airbnb – You’ve now written a book which is coming out in July called Intentional Integrity How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution. And so what took what inspired you to become an author, to write a book? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, I never had any grand desire to be an author. I think seeing what is happening in the world. Watching companies get waylaid by focusing exclusively on profits and watching leaders take advantage of their position. For their own personal benefit. Me, too. In the light, I believe that companies can be a powerful force for good in the world. But I believe that they need to understand the power of making integrity a part of their culture. And if they can do that, they can accomplish.

I think far greater things in the 20th century, I think is marked by this belief that companies are beholden to shareholders, that whatever is good for the shareholder is what the company needs to do. And that has been interpreted, I think, as whatever it takes to get the stock price up this week or this quarter is what matters. You know, we focus on the financial revenue number. And I wouldn’t deny certainly that you’ve got to focus on the numbers because, without the money, a company doesn’t have the resources to survive. But what we’ve seen and this is just in the last several years’ time, is that old notion being discredited, people questioning, well, wait a minute, why the companies have to focus 100 percent just on money.

Companies should have other stakeholders. And what we’ve seen evolving just in the last couple of years is more and more companies adopting the stakeholder approach and by a stakeholder approach. I mean, who do you work for? Who are you working for every day? Profit is not enough. So you investors are stakeholders, but your employees should be stakeholders, your customers should be stakeholders. And even the communities where you operate should be a stakeholder. And when you start to run the business to aid all of your stakeholders, I think the way that you do business takes a turn toward the more ethical. And encouraging that trend is, I think, really important for the world. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, I agree. It actually reminds me of a story from a past colleague. We worked at a large public company and we kept hearing the words shareholder value for shareholder value. And it was in every it seems like every communication, every everything that was being said from. From the leadership team and a colleague of mine in an open house. There’s questions of question period and raised his hand and said, isn’t it more than just shareholder value? And we saw the organization change their language based on that because it is more than just driving profit for shareholders. And so you’d mentioned that you know, when we take a look from a business perspective and change that language to stakeholders, it drives more ethical business. And so what do you mean by that? 

Rob Chesnut

Well. If you know, when you see a lot of bad corporate behavior over the last several decades, it’s driven by a designer, first of all, for personal enrichment. Because the leaders in a company are compensated based on a stock price. So and it’s not a stock price five years down the road. It’s a stock price in the here and now. So that just encourages behavior, which is often unethical, fudging numbers, or taking a short term approach to business. By the way, that’s short term, very narrow focus leads to problems like even climate change.

Let’s look. Let’s get our number up. And let’s not worry about the pollution that our factory may be putting into the air or into the streams. It also promotes behavior like, well, let’s get the cheapest price for this item, even if the item is made with child labor overseas. Now that and look at Volkswagen. Volkswagen got in such trouble for the way that they put out diesel cars, claiming that it was Spiro emission. And now that all came from leadership and Volkswagen saying you need to figure out a way to do this.

I don’t care how you do it. Just do it. And if you don’t do it, we’ll find somebody else who will do it. Well, when you send that kind of message. You encouraged people to find a way to do it. It’s often not legal or ethical. And that’s exactly what they did. They actually devised a system that detected when the cars were on a test treadmill and when they detected that a test was being run, the engine changed and put out no emissions. But when the vehicle was a normal operations mode, it was spewing out the.

The emissions that were fouling the air. Well, again, when you operate in a mode of doing what you do, what anything you have to do in order to hit a number. That’s when people start to fudge. That’s when people start to do things motivated by profit, purely profit. That’s the kind of mentality we need to be. Taking a hard look at and asking will win that, why do we have to operate that way? You know, there’s a lot of great scholarship about corporations that believe that no company should have multiple stakeholders. Why are their employees important? Why aren’t customers important? Why aren’t the communities important as well? I think smart companies are now starting to operate with this broader notion, stakeholder notion that we need to balance the concerns of all of our stakeholders. What do we do best? 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, absolutely right. I fundamentally agree with you and it really leads into what you’re talking about is what’s in your book about the 6 C’s, that foster integrity. And it starts, you know, the first C is chief. It starts at the top. And, you know, there’s a great universal definition. And I say universal because it’s so widely used right now, is doing the right thing when no one else is watching. That’s an I think, a good definition of integrity. So let’s, then, what is intentional integrity then. 

Rob Chesnut

And also, I think the definition of integrity is as evolved a bit as well. You know, that that old idea of doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, was really nice. The problem is in today’s world, Tim, everybody’s watching all the time. 

Tim Reitsma

Everybody. Yeah, everybody. There’s nothing secret anymore. 

Rob Chesnut

Nothing secret anymore. In the old days, if there was bad behavior in a company, what happened? Nothing, because it was being swept under the rug quietly. People weren’t aware of it, but even if they were aware of it, they didn’t have a platform to talk about it today. Not only does everyone know about it, but the Internet gives every employee and every customer a platform to spread what’s happening immediately to the entire globe. And we swept under the rug anymore. 

Tim Reitsma

We’ve seen that happen even recently where employees are very publicly leaving very, very large organizations for what they say is unethical behavior and putting it out on LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram, every social media platform. 

Rob Chesnut

This is the ethical revolution that I talk about. The world needs work and companies, employees and customers are empowered in ways they’ve never been empowered before. Customers expect that the companies they do business with are going to share their values. And if they don’t see that, they see a values mismatch. All the data shows is that customers are moving to spend their money elsewhere. Same with employees. Employees now are very driven by mission making. Money is obviously important to them, but it’s also a belief that when they go to work every day that they are doing good in the world and if they see their company doing things that are inconsistent with their own personal values, they’ve got the Internet.

They can connect with each other, they can spread it. You know, Susan Fowler from Uber her blog post single-handedly changed the fortunes of Uber. Come, employees now. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll post about it. They’ll march. They’ll go on strike and they’ll leave. So this is a new world that I think requires actually a higher level of leadership. You know, in the old days, again, just get the stock price up today. You’ve got to generate your revenue numbers. But you’ve also got to do. Behaving ethically inside the company and guiding the company through an increasingly complex outside world and doing that in an ethical way. Now, the fascinating thing about all this, Tim, is that, in the old days, people believed that ethics is nice, but it gets in the way of business.

It’s a cost. What all the data is showing is that companies that operate with integrity, with ethics, actually outperform the market and outperform their competitors. So the irony of all this is that if you focus on a stakeholder approach if you try to do the right thing by multiple stakeholders and act ethically. Custom- it will resonate with your customers. It will resonate with employees. It will reduce audit costs. It will improve trust with the government. And your financial picture will improve. So you’re actually doing the right thing for shareholders by viewing your obligations as stakeholders. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. Here, you hit on something that’s at least, you know, near and dear to my heart. And I think of the organizations or companies that I purchase from. I don’t just purchase for the sake of purchasing anymore. It’s, you know, what is what do these organizations stand behind? How what is the response to two things going on in the world? And more and more consumers are aware of this and are doing their research and not just research on, you know, search and Internet, but also searching your social media feeds. And so. Yeah, does it lead to increased profits or profitability? Absolutely.

But it’s what drives that organization, which is important. And you talk about in the book a story at Airbnb kind of early on when a tenant trashed someone’s rental, someone’s place of live living, stole jewelry and the whole nine yards and Airbnb could have said, well, it’s not our responsibility. 

Rob Chesnut

But instead, they responded differently and changed it insurance and implemented that insurance basically at Airbnb’s cost that insurance was a message to our hosts that when something goes wrong, there’s now a company that’s going to stand behind you and help you. So it’s over. And it did. Did it cost more money in the short term? Sure. Because they’re being asked to pay those costs. But by sending a message that we care about our host, that the host matter ultimately resonates with those, it builds trust. And ultimately, I think, helped propel the business to the next level. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, well, in the book, there’s really this underlying theme of trust. And if you look through the 6 C’s, I also looked through some of the ways that organizations could fail in terms of ethics. And really, it’s there’s this theme that I’m picking out, is trust. You know, it starts with the top and how we communicate it and makes sure it’s clear and make sure those reporting systems. And so how do you build trust with your stakeholders? 

Rob Chesnut

Trust. Trust is the engine behind a lot of our economy. And when trust is low, it becomes harder to do business and harder to get worked up. What’s troubling is that data demonstrates that trust has never been lower. There’s something called the Edelman Trust Barometer. They’ve been doing it for decades and they go out and interview tens of thousands of people all over the world. And the data from 2020 shows that. Nobody trusts anybody. Trust in government. 

Rob Chesnut

Down. Trust in companies. Down. 

Rob Chesnut

Trust in nonprofits. Religion. 

Rob Chesnut

The media Down. So. 

Rob Chesnut

The question really is, how do you build trust? You know, what the data shows us there are two ways to build trust, competence, and integrity. So if you demonstrate that you are competent, you will build trust. If you demonstrate that you are trying to do the right thing and that you act ethically, you actually will build trust even more than competence. In fact, the data shows that acting ethically and with integrity is three times as powerful in building trust, as demonstrating competence in what you do. So if you want to build trust with others, act with integrity. That can be the foundation for building trust and then driving all of the good that goes with that trust. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s such a timely conversation, as you said. Trust is at an all-time low and sure, we can have organizations or leaders that are competent, but ethically is at the forefront. How are organizations being led by ethical people through a lens of ethics? Yeah, through the lens of integrity and ethics. And so, you know, we also touch on in the book about values. And so, you know, organizations have values at some stage, whether they’re written on the wall. And nobody remembers what they are or, you know, they’re brought up in every team meeting and written on t-shirts. So everybody knows what they are. And so, you know, how do organizations live their values? I think it’s it’s a clear tie in, at least in my mind, to ethics and to integrity. 

Rob Chesnut

Sure, every company needs to have a purpose. What’s its reason for existence? Profit is not a purpose. Profit is an outgrowth of running the business in a financially responsible way. But it’s not the reason that a company should exist. Every company needs to think about that right upfront. The smallest company starting in a garage. What’s your purpose? What do you stand for? What are your values? And if you’ve got that from your early days and you have that understanding that. Guides your key decisions. It guides the kind of people that you hire. And then as the company gets larger, it’s instilled in the company right from the start. What’s hard to do is take a large company and try to instill some purpose into it after they’re all right.

Already hundreds of thousands of people working there because you’ve done all this hiring without a North Star. You’ve already baked in certain things about your brand and the way that you operate without that North Star. So, you know, early on, you know, you may not need a fancy compliance program or even a long code of that. That’s when you’re really small. But you need to have a purpose and you need to understand the. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah. I’ve had an opportunity to consult with a number of small-medium organizations on purpose and doing purpose work and an unpacking purpose is often in consulting. I had been doing organizations bring us in because they’re experiencing high turnover or their employee satisfaction stats are way down or their customer satisfaction stats are way down. And it’s really aligning again, as he said to that North Star.

Why? Why do you exist? Why do we exist? And then taking that and building out, what do we stand for? What are our values? So let’s say, you know, I’m an organization, I’ve got a purpose, I’ve got values. Where do I go? I know we need a code of ethics. Know we need to be able to articulate this to the team. Do I just Google a template and find somebody whose template or I’ll copy paste and just change the name. Yeah. Somebody else’s or. Where do I start? 

Rob Chesnut

Right. Well, you know, there’s an old way of doing this. You know, when I first started thinking about how do you drive integrity into the culture of a company, the 20th century way of doing it is, well, you get a code of ethics. Most people get a code of ethics from their law firm or outmoded somebody else’s code of ethics off the Internet. Then they put their name and logo on the top. Then they email it out to all the employees and say Check a box and say that you’ve read it, but nobody ever talks about it and nobody ever sees it again until three or four years later. There’s an updated version and they do the same thing.

You know, the other things you typically see are people put up a compliance poster. You know, one of those laminated posters that some third party makes and they put it up in the breakroom and it’s got the tiny little four-point font. Heaven knows, nobody ever will. But it’s there. Right. So here, I think H.R. and Legal would fall over if they ever saw a group of employees over there reading the poster. Oh, absolutely. There is the sexual harassment video that some third party creates that they email out and say everybody must watch this video, but nobody ever talks about the video.

Now, what kind of a message do you send about how important integrity is when that’s all that you do? We know that the approach that we took in Airbnb, I think was very different and very human-based. And the first thing you have to do is you have to start at the top of the company because it CEO and the leadership team aren’t bought into the importance of integrity. You are completely wasting your time because you can talk if you’re in H.R. and legal. You can talk all you want to about what a great code of ethics and how important ethics is to the company. But everybody’s watching the leaders.

And if the leaders are acting without integrity and they aren’t talking about integrity, then everybody knows the truth. They know it’s not really important. So one of the things we did at Airbnb early on was I talked with Brian Chesky, the founder, CEO, and the rest of the leadership team. We had a conversation about things and we get very specific. I’ll give you an example. You know me, me too movement, was, has been incredibly powerful and bad acts by leaders have had such a negative impact on companies. And it struck me that if you’re out at the very top of a company and I’m talking about CEO and the very top leadership team.

You should not be having a romantic relationship with a lower-level employee, nor should you be having a relationship with a vendor. Those sorts of relationships were based on this inequality. And what we’ve seen over and over again is that even if the relationship starts out consensually and by the way, that often isn’t the case. But even if they start out consensually when things go bad, they could tear a company apart. So early on when we were thinking about our code of ethics, I walked into a leadership meeting one day and said, you know what, everybody I think that is part of the 10 people executive team running the company. We should not be having a romantic relationship with anybody in the company nor any supplier.

What do you think? As I said, we shouldn’t make a rule unless every member of the leadership team is bought into it. And it was silent for a few seconds and then finally one person said, oh, Rob, all of us are married, are in serious relationships anyway. That shouldn’t matter. And I said, well, judging from what I’m reading online, being married doesn’t stop leaders from doing these sorts of things. So I ask everybody again? I said what do you want to do? And we actually went around one by one.

Look, everybody knew and everybody said, I’m in. So that enabled us to put right in the code of ethics that if you’re on the executive leadership team, you will not have a romantic relationship of any kind with any employee or vendor, even one that both parties would otherwise consent to. And it enabled us to talk about that company-wide. That means because we’ve all looked at each other in the room, we’ve all looked at each other in the eye and committed each other. We’re not going to do it.

The odds of something like that happening are much, much lower. And if they do happen, it makes it so much easier to deal with. Because now you’ve broken your promise to every member of the team. One lesson is to get buy-in at the top of the company early on and be explicit. Ambiguity is the enemy of integrity. Silence is the air that is the enemy of integrity. When you’re specific about what you mean by integrity, there are no misunderstandings. We all are human.

Science tells us that we’re going to interpret rules and norms in a way that benefits us. So without specific rules, we will come up with our own view of what integrity is. It will favor us. And as we get more comfortable with doing things, we will make more and more decisions that are favorable to ourselves. And pretty soon we’ll be in territory that is unethical to most. But we’ve talked ourselves into the fact that it’s OK. We’ve been able to. The smaller you are, the more creative you are, the more at risk you are to talk yourself into doing something that might otherwise be unethical. But you’re able to frame it to yourself in such a way that you’ve talked yourself into it and that’s how you end up in ethical difficulties. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s what’s coming up for me in that is, well, a lot of points you mentioned ambiguity and silence and ambiguity is definitely an enemy of integrity if it’s not clear and it’s not coming from the top. I think if it’s easy for leaders to say, well, I won’t ever be in that situation. So it doesn’t apply to me but applies for the team. Again, you’re not building that trust. And ultimately, your integrity may come into question. 

Tim Reitsma

And so was that ever the case that at Airbnb? 

Rob Chesnut

You know you build things in you have to talk about integrity from the top. I’ll give you another example. We do orientation for all new employees. There are about twenty, twenty-five classes in your first week. Everybody that’s new flies into San Francisco. Everybody hears the same thing. So I went to the orientation group and said, you know what, we need to talk about ethics. I’d like it for an hour. And they looked at me and said, an hour on ethics, you’re gonna try to drive people out of the company.

I said we can do this in a way that I think is engaging. And they said, who’s gonna do it? And I said I will. And they said You’re the general counsel. How are you going to do that every week? I said I’m going to find the time because it’s really important that people hear the message of integrity from a leader directly. Absolutely. Doesn’t mean as much if some mid-level person in HR is saying it. But over and over again in the surveys, they do blind surveys at the end of each week about the orientation classes. Number one orientation class, number one ranked orientation class at Airbnb was the ethics class.

And people said you have no idea what it means to hear this coming from a leader. And I actually got this idea from Meg Whitman, CEO at eBay, when Meg was CEO at eBay. She used to come in and talk to every new hire class herself as the CEO of the company. And she told me, Rob, I do it because there is no more powerful way to impact the culture of your company than to come in and deliver the message live and direct.

Something about recording a video. If you record a video and play it for people, it sends the message that it was worth me, it was worth my time once, but it’s not worth my time, more than that. So I think you need to do it live. I think leaders need to be the ones delivering the message. And when the message comes directly from leadership, it’s far more powerful and impactful. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s an I’ve sat through ethics training videos and the only thing we talked about afterward was how quickly did we get through the test. And, you know, we people found loopholes on how to skip sections and just to get to the test. And, you know, do I remember anything from those? Absolutely not. 

Rob Chesnut

I had a conversation with my daughter about this that impacted Airbnb in the book. My daughter is 19 years old. And I was talking to her about sexual harassment videos. And she said, oh, yeah, when I had my summer job at the restaurant, they made all of us watch it. And she described how all of her friends basically ignored it. They’re trying to click through it faster. She couldn’t remember a single thing about it. I said, well, what do you do? And she said you should do a cup of tea.

I said, Well, what’s a cup of tea? And she said it’s a video that we watched when I went to a summer program at Carnegie Mellon. It’s three minutes long. It’s humorous, uses animated stick figures, and compares asking permission to have sex with someone, asking them if they want a cup of tea. My daughter then spent 10 minutes describing this video to me. She then runs over, gets her laptop, brings it over. Turns out this thing is on YouTube. It’s got eight million-plus views. And, it was funny.

Clearly impactful. My son, who’s then lying on the sofa with his phone, says, Yeah, I don’t watch any video that’s longer than five minutes. So that got me thinking, why are we trying to force people to learn using a method that clearly doesn’t reach them and they don’t want to learn with it? Why not teach people with a three-minute video.

So we kind of challenging ourselves. Let’s make a homegrown video every month at Airbnb, three minutes. And pick a different topic around ethics each month. And let’s not force people to watch it. Let’s just send it out and see what happens. So we started doing it. And the reaction was shocking, really. People loved them. People started writing in, asking, how could they appear in the videos because we would do funny little scenes where people would act things out and, Tim, the acting’s terrible in this video, and recorded on my iPhone. 

Tim Reitsma

I love it. 

Rob Chesnut

There’s nothing about the script that’s great. And we don’t mention legal standards one time. They’re practical. They’ve got humor. And every month Airbnb fifteen hundred two thousand five hundred employees voluntarily watch an ethics video. That’s unreal. And what it really taught us, that if you put a little effort into it, if you make it human, if you make it your own and you don’t insult people by forcing them to watch it, you can have a far greater impact than the old two-hour sexual harassment third party videos. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s driving a human connection that it’s not a third party that you’ve never met before. You know, trying to teach you something that you think it’s like, I already know this, but it’s human. It’s real, it’s fun and it’s impactful and it’s memorable. I think you’re hitting on the kind of like your son said, you know, I don’t watch anything more than five minutes.

So it’s hitting on all those core needs. And often do you find organizations create these, you know, ethic training or code of ethics or ethic videos, reactive or proactive? I’ve heard of organizations that have sold products to the wrong people gotten fined. Now they have to implement this whole code of ethics and training and whatnot and more of a reactive side versus what it seems like. At Airbnb, t’s like, how can we impact our organization in with integrity? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, that’s you know, that’s what started me on this journey in the first place because I was the general counsel of the company. Yeah. And I decided I’d rather invest time and being proactive. Speak to orientation classes, work on you. Do a funny video every month. Do that sort of proactive thing, because you’re going to spend time on ethics and integrity issues no matter what. It’s a lot more fun to spend time proactively upfront preventing a problem than it is scrambling and putting something in on the back end after the problem has already occurred.

And by the way, after the problems occurred, your brand’s been damaged. Trust went broke. Why not build your brand, build trust early on in outside the framework of any problem? So people aren’t saying, oh, yeah, the only reason we’re doing that is because of what happened at the holiday party. It’s like, no, we’re actually going to do it because we believe it’s the right thing to do. We believe it’s part of our culture that gives you a strong level of defense against problems and actually by the way builds a place for work that.

People really enjoy it. I did one of these ethics training programs a few months ago. A woman comes up to me afterward. Yeah, Tim, she’s actually she’s got tears running down her cheek. She says to me, Rob, you have no idea what it means to work at a company that genuinely cares about this stuff. She told me that at her past company, which was a large tech company in Silicon Valley, her boss was repeatedly propositioning her, but she didn’t trust her company to do anything about it. And that’s why she left the company.

And she said hearing from a leader directly that this is important means more to me than you can ever imagine. So you’re reaching people. You’re touching their heart in a human way. And you’re, I think, being far more impactful than any two hour or third party produced video can ever be. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for sharing this story. That’s impactful. Just hearing it. It’s more than just a word on a wall. Right. We hear organizations that have a value called integrity or they say they operate with integrity. And then you hear horror stories just like this. This person came up to you. We’ve also heard horror stories of organizations frauding clients and but yet publicized that they operate with integrity. And so it derails trust. 

Rob Chesnut

It’s a poster. RIght? It’s a pretty lake, a forest the word integrity underneath. It was funny. I was looking the other day at WeWork and their code of ethics. So this is the We Work Code of ethics in 2017. Guess what they talk about in the very first sentence of their code of ethics. They talk about integrity, operating with integrity.

But the problem is, as we now know, that isn’t the way things actually operated inside the company. It was one of those codes of ethics that somebody pulled out from the Internet or from a law firm. But it wasn’t ever talked about in a human way and it never got driven into the culture of that company. And that ultimately, I think, played a significant role in the demise of the company. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, it just because it’s written down doesn’t mean that that’s what an organization stands by. And as we talked about earlier in the podcast, nowadays, employees and people, customers, all stakeholders can go and find if that is how an organization operates. And so it’s really important to take this seriously. And so let’s just say I’m a startup. I’ve got, you know, a dozen people working with me on an idea. Where do we get started? How how do I get started with a code of ethics and what does it look like? Do I need to outsource it? Obviously, no, but. But what do I do? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, you know, if you’re really small, you might not even need a formal code of ethics if you’re 10 people working in a garage or a little temporary office. But what you should be doing is you should sit down and think carefully about what’s your purpose? Why does your company exist? And after you’ve thought about it, as the founder leader of the company, you need to sit down and have a 30-minute one-hour conversation with the other employees about why you’re there. What are your purposes? And you should talk a little bit about the kind of place that you want to operate and the kind of workplace that you all want.

Maybe you put a little poster on the wall with your company’s values just as a reminder and make a point every so often. Every month. Every time you all sit as a group from time to time, make reference to that purpose and those values. Having it come from you as the leader means a lot. And make sure it’s part of the constant drumbeat of communication about it. Now, as you get bigger, you will probably need to have some form of a code of ethics and you can start with something that you find online.

But the key is to make it your own and actually make it a project, get a diverse group of employees and by diverse, I mean, not only gender and color of skin but have somebody from marketing, somebody from finance, somebody from legal, get a number of perspectives on making the document your own. Put it in your own language. Make sure that the rules that you all agree by there makes sense for your business and make sure that they are consistent with your purpose. And you can start with a relatively short one. But I think the key is to make sure something that your employees feel ownership of and make sure it’s personal to the company. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, and it’s thanks for that. I ask the question maybe a little selfishly as a part of a small organization, and we have a couple of things that have come up. And I’m looking for guidance as I’m now joining this organization on how we approach certain behaviors or how we approach certain things. And so it’s really at the top of my mind. And it comes down to quickly go through the 6 C’s that are outlined in the book. As you know, it starts at the top of the chief and then a customized code of ethics. This is really that don’t just take a template and you’ve got to communicate it clear reporting system consequences and constant. And I like that just the super clear path on how we can approach the world of business. 

Rob Chesnut

Don’t be afraid to be specific. So like the dating example I gave, you know, at Airbnb, we’re very specific. If you’re on the executive team, no romantic relationships. If you’re a manager in the company, no romantic, you cannot even propose or be involved in a romantic relationship with anyone on your team outside of that. If you want to propose a romantic encounter or relationship with someone, you may do it. But you may only ask once. If the person says no, then you’ve got to drop it because we don’t want a workplace where people feel like they’re being badgered about.

Everybody knows those three rules of the company. We talk about it at orientation and we remind people about it in videos and notes throughout the year. We’re specific about alcohol. We don’t have a big blow out alcohol parties at Airbnb. And I actually share my philosophy around alcohol at orientation. I tell new employees Rob’s rule and Rob’s rule is I will never have more than two drinks within any work setting. Two drinks don’t matter how tired I am, how strong the drinks are, whether I’m having food or not, because I know I can have two drinks and I’m not going to do anything stupid but drink three, four.

I’m not sure. And my career is worth finding out. And as I tell everybody as a joint, you don’t have to adopt Rob. Rob’s rule. Some people don’t drink at all with people at work. Some people might be able to handle three drinks. The important thing is, think about it. And think about it in advance. The worst time to make a decision about how much alcohol you should be drinking in a work setting is while you’re drinking alcohol in a work setting.

And if you’re specific and you think about these things and you talk about these things openly as a company, again, since ambiguity is the enemy of integrity, you eliminate a lot of those sorts of vague questions that are out there and you’ve set the right tone. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, it’s getting clear, being clear. And don’t be silent. And don’t be. I think what I’m hearing is, you know, be very specific. What is acceptable and what’s not. And I feel I’ve been in organizations where they’re afraid. I think people are afraid to say what they stand for. And so behaviors that could be detrimental to an organization, go on. And I think that’s where organizations will land themselves into trouble as well as, you know, lend themselves into a position that they might not want to be.

And so I think, you know, we’ve talked about the importance of it. And so you’ve got a purpose and values and a code of ethics. And In Chapter nine of the book, you talk about monitoring the company culture for signs of trouble. Now, what would be a sign of trouble or how would you monitor this? Aside from, you know, you could be 10 people or, you know, a thousand people. Is it just, you know, making sure you’re around the organization? Just hearing things? Or is it asking questions or anonymous surveys? 

Rob Chesnut

Well, it’s a number of things, I think. You can’t rely on one touchpoint. I’ll give you a half dozen. No. One, you can do employee service on surveys and just ask the question, do you agree or disagree? Airbnb has an ethical culture or agrees or disagrees. My manager operates with integrity and gather the data and see where you are and then watch how that may move over time. Another thing we do is cause most companies, all public companies did have a reporting hotline where people can report bad behavior.

Now, I’ve talked to some people who say, oh, we’ve got a hotline and we might we don’t have any problems because nobody ever reports things. Well, that might be a sign of trouble. Often people don’t report things because they don’t trust and they don’t trust the process. They don’t trust what’s going on. So we look at hotline reports, but we don’t kid ourselves that if there are a low number of unwanted reports, we don’t necessarily believe that that means there’s not a problem. We may understand that the problem may be a trust problem. We also have a group of employees at the company called Ethics Advisors.

Ethics Advisors have full-time jobs in the company. They’re in finance, customer support sales, and the like, but they volunteer their time to be sort of ambassadors for the ethics program. They contribute their thoughts to the code of ethics and they contribute their opinions when we have ethical questions that come up. We also promote them to the employees as a friendly place that you can go to ask your ethics questions. A lot of people are afraid to go to legal or HR. You know that’s scary. But, at Airbnb, you’ve got somebody on your team that you work with that you can go to and ask.

So we track how many questions our ethics advisors get and what types of questions they get. During the first quarter of t2020, Airbnb ethics advisers got almost 100 questions. Now those are for the most part, questions that if there were no ethics advisor program,  those questions might not ever have been raised or ever ask, but because we’ve got a comfortable place for people to go, a trusted place, those things get raised and resolved. And with that helps keep us on an ethical path so we can actually watch the numbers of questions to ethical advisers, go up or down a recorder and monitor what sorts of things were on employees’ minds.

That’s the thing you do is, you know, there are all sorts of Web sites out there and apps for employees to use to anonymously voice their views about how a company operates. There’s GlassDoor, there’s Blind. You can go on, there is a leader and just read and get a sense for what people are feeling at any particular point. But the key is any one of these touchpoints might give you an incomplete picture. But if you really want to know they’re out there, there are things you can do if you’re willing to listen. And then if you are, you can track how things go over time and monitor your progress. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s such a valuable data point into the organization. How are things? How are people feeling? What kind of questions is coming up in? And then I’m sure that helps decide what we need to train on or do we need to have a larger conversation with the leadership team. And so thanks for that. I know I kind of threw that question out at you without prepping you on it, but I think it’s so important. Right. We can have great ethics training, but how do we then monitor it and ensure that things are working?

We need the way we need them to work. So, you know, as we as we look to wrap up, what is one final thought for anyone who’s listening, whether it’s a founder of a small company or, you know, a leader in a large company, how do we instill kind of that culture of doing right. And just love to get your final thoughts on that. 

Rob Chesnut

I’ll speak to leaders. It’s on you. The integrity is something that often people are uncomfortable talking about their own, almost feels like, well, you know, that’s really none of my business. That’s each individual’s morals or religion. Well, as a leader, people are looking at you. They’re looking to you for guidance. You know, there’s a lack of clarity for people out there on what integrity means. Traditionally, companies outsource uncomfortable topics to HR and legal. But what’s happened over the decades is that ethics and integrity have turned into compliance with checkboxes, turned into three pages in the employee handbook, and compliance is important.

But ethics and integrity are separate, and ethics and integrity is something that needs to be addressed directly by leaders in a very human and authentic way. And you can’t duck it. And if you do and you don’t talk about these things, I think your company is not tapping into a potential superpower that can help energize employees, excite customers and build the kind of trust that can propel the business to do even better than it is. So it’s on you as a leader to take this on. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for your final thoughts, Rob. It’s been just a pleasure listening to you talk and just hearing your passion about. About how organizations can do better and need to do better. And so your book comes out in July, and I encourage everyone and anyone to go and pick it up, have a read through it. It will really, you know if you’re on the fence about why do I need to do this? I do I need to do this? It’s such a clear outline and an inspirational read and practical read for anyone who’s thinking about ethics, integrity, or just business in general. So, the title again is Intentional Integrity How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution. So thanks again, Rob, for coming on. 

Rob Chesnut

Thanks. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. 

Tim Reitsma

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