Everyone talks about having integrity, both individually and at the company level. But what does it mean to act with integrity? How can we be more intentional about it? Airbnb's former Chief Ethics Officer, Rob Chestnut, offers tips.
Integrity. It’s a good word—strong and confident. It speaks to being honest and having strong moral principles. You know integrity is important to have. But it can be hard to define, both at the company and individual levels.
I sat down with Rob Chestnut, former Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb and author of the new book Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead An Ethical Revolution, to learn more from him about his approach to integrity.
What is intentional integrity?
I began by asking Rob to explain the title of his book. What exactly is intentional integrity?
For Rob, integrity is about having values or purpose in your life or in your company—a North Star. Integrity is the way you commit to operating “even when it's hard, even when no one's watching.” Intentional integrity means being really purposeful about it.
A pretty poster with a lake in the background is not integrity. You need to bring it to life with specifics.
For a company, specificity is key. “A pretty poster with a lake in the background is not integrity. You need to bring it to life with specifics.”
Integrity looks great on a poster. But when hard business decisions need to be made, how can companies stand by those commitments?
Why is integrity essential?
People today—customers, employees, and shareholders—expect more from companies than just profit. Business practices that are unfair to labor or harm the environment are no longer acceptable. We’re seeing a shift in how companies are thinking and making decisions. We need big companies to step up and help solve problems while doing business.
Companies have to be thinking not just about near-term results, but about their employees and the communities around them. Rob says:
…When companies start thinking about broader stakeholders and…making integrity part of business, the data shows that they actually perform better, that it resonates with customers and employees so much that companies [operating] with integrity actually end up outperforming the market…
It’s encouraging to see businesses thinking about the whole ecosystem in which they’re operating. Rob says the Internet plays a big role. It gives employees a voice to speak out about what they don't like inside of a company. And they often find that the world is listening. The same is true with customers. If a customer had a bad experience in the past, people might not hear about it, but today the whole world hears about it.
Who owns integrity?
Rob was the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. But most companies don’t have such a title. So who actually owns integrity within a company?
“You can't outsource integrity,” Rob says. Integrity has to be owned by someone at the top of the company. If a CEO and a leadership team aren't aligned on what doing the right things looks like, then it will fail.
Great leaders understand that a company’s character shines through in moments of crisis. And that's when practicing integrity is both the hardest and the most important.
Integrity must begin at the top, and then you can then start to have authentic conversations. Get away from the posters and actually have leaders talk about integrity as part of the regular drumbeat of communication within a company. That's how you make a real difference. Great leaders understand that a company’s character shines through in moments of crisis. And that's when practicing integrity is both the hardest and the most important.
How can you play a role in upholding integrity in your workplace?
Rob talks a lot about leadership—how leaders should behave to bring integrity to life. But what, I asked him, should an employee do when they see an action or behavior that doesn’t align with that company’s promise? How can you safely call out bad behavior or practices?
It’s common to see employees hesitating to speak up. But once they do, they are often surprised to find others who have the same concern.
It’s common to see employees hesitating to speak up. But once they do, they are often surprised to find others who have the same concern. Now, more than ever, companies need to listen to employees. And often, leaders need just a bit of encouragement from others in the company to do the right thing.
So my advice to people is talk to your manager about what’s on your mind. But position it positively and constructively. Let your leader know your concerns come from a place of wanting to serve or protect the company and its customers. Whether you’ve spotted a risk, an opportunity, or bad behavior, your goal is keeping all stakeholders safe and happy.
How can job-seekers find ethical companies to work for?
By this point Rob had offered much wisdom for both leaders and employees. But what about job-seekers? How can someone interviewing for a new job look for signals of integrity during the interview process? Here are some tips he offered:
- Review company statements and press releases. What issues does the company talk about? What does their track record like? Do you see signs of commitment to the environment or local communities? What about a commitment to diversity and inclusion or racial justice? Can you find specific examples of these values in action?
- Do Internet research. Use websites like Glassdoor or LinkedIn to follow actual employee conversations about their experiences working for a company you're interested in.
- Use your network. Do you know someone who has worked at the company, or who can connect you to someone who has? Reach out and ask about their experience with issues that are important to you.
- Pay attention during your interview. Focus on what’s being asked and also what’s not. Is the interviewer interested only in the business results you’ve delivered? Or do they focus on how you make choices and decisions? A purely results-driven company may not value integrity as much as one that values the thought processes behind the actions that drive those results.
An Airbnb integrity story
Rob shared an inspiring story from his days at Airbnb. At one point, the company had discovered some of their customers were experiencing discrimination from hosts based on their skin color or appearance. Rob had to manage a legal response.
When he spoke with Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, Rob asked about the company’s legal responsibility.
“Brian holds up his hand and says, ‘Stop.’ He said, ‘I don't care.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you don't care?’ And he said, ‘I don't really care about the law.”
Instead of caring about legal responsibility, Rob cared about Airbnb's customers. Airbnb’s mission is “to help create a world where you can belong anywhere and where people can live in a place instead of just traveling to it.” Yet these customer discrimination experiences were flying in the face of belonging. Brian’s commitment was to behave in alignment with Airbnb's stated mission.
That, Rob told me, is intentional integrity in action.
How can you demonstrate integrity in action?
By this point we’d talked a lot about the responsibility of leadership and organizations. What, I asked him, about each of us as individuals? How does he advise people to define their own individual sense of integrity?
Integrity doesn’t require perfection; it’s a journey. So get moving.
We all believe that we're basically good human beings who want to do the right thing. The problem is that we don't get very specific with ourselves. We need to anticipate scenarios and imagine how we would behave in alignment with our own ethics.
What would you do if you were in a room and someone made an inappropriate remark? You might be so shocked that you let it go. I think real integrity comes from thinking about those situations in advance and deciding who we will be in that moment.
And if we aren’t who we promised we would be, we should cut ourselves some slack.
Yes, you can go back later and apologize.
Integrity doesn’t require perfection; it’s a journey. So get moving.