The August session of SHRM’s “Tune in Tuesday” featured a great discussion by Rob Chesnut, the former Chief Ethics Officer and General Counsel for Airbnb and author of the book “Intentional Integrity.”
Rob shared several stories and examples about how, more than ever, ethics and integrity have taken center stage in companies and organizations worldwide. In the past, corporations could focus solely on their bottom line by driving up shareholder value. However, in today’s world, as both employees are customers alike have become more in tune with what companies are doing that may oppose their own values, they are speaking up about it. Rob points out that employees today want to “be a part of something bigger than their paycheck” and will speak up about company values. In addition, “conscious customers” want to know the values of the companies that they are dealing with which holds them more accountable.
Rob sees the current direction of greater transparency and the willingness of employees and customers to “speak out” on social media as a frightening time for business leaders and even human resources, but also as a time of opportunity to create more loyal and employees and customers by aligning their values.
Rob illustrated how he worked to build an environment of integrity during his tenure at Airbnb. Rather than go the usual route with the traditional Code of Ethics, videos, poster, he wanted to proactively build a culture where integrity would be built-in rather than be just a policy that is drafted and placed in a drawer or binder.
“The CEO is a thermostat and not a thermometer.” What Rob meant by this is that a thermostat sets the temperature while a thermometer just reports it and that this also applied to a company’s intentional strategy of integrity. He added, “you can’t outsource integrity” and that it needed to be created and fostered for an organization by the example of the leaders.
Rob provided details about how Airbnb incorporated discussions about ethics in new employee orientation sessions to set the right tone about integrity on day one with new employees. He also implemented an innovative “Ethics Advisor Program” in an effort to “spread out the ownership of ethics” by identifying individuals across various work units who employees could access with any ethics inquiries. This provided employees with additional resources other than legal and human resources to bring up issues that they may otherwise not have been comfortable sharing. This model helped to promote the idea that everyone had a stake in owning the organization’s ethics and integrity in the workplace.
Another innovative idea that Rob shared was the creation of three, 4-minute videos each month covering a variety of ethics topics for employees. These simple, no-budget productions were created with his cellphone and with the assistance of employee volunteers. This concept allowed employees to share ideas, participate in the videos, and eventually became a welcome part of the Airbnb culture as employees began to binge watch these timely and engaging monthly videos.
Rob concluded by sharing that companies and their leaders were often afraid to talk about difficult and often controversial topics, but they no longer have the luxury of staying silent. Leaders need to understand the purpose of their organizations and how controversial topics that challenge ethics and integrity impact their respective organizations. This should help companies to identify and address what is most important at that time. “The world needs companies to step up and lead with integrity.”