Why Airbnb’s Report is a Great First Step

Our behavior in society mirrors our inner selves. As our private lives have moved online, they have become increasingly observable through the platforms that we use. Therefore, these platforms, and the companies that create them, are in the increasingly common position of being accountable for how the moral failings of us as individuals is played out through their service. I do not (at the moment) wish to debate to what degree it is correct or productive to blame Airbnb for discrimination that has its roots in centuries of prejudice and its branches and leaves on their platform (but I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this). Instead I want to use this time to discuss the ways in which Airbnb’s recently published report is a great first step, and the pitfalls I believe they should lookout for if they want it to translate into anything more than a first step.

1) Engagement from Senior Leaders

  • The CEO is actually on board. Cultural change is affected by cultural power. In most organizations this falls on reporting lines. Many HR executives and diversity directors are hindered by the fact that the senior leaders are not willing to prioritize cultural change over existing values (profit, enrollment, market share, etc.). Other cultural influencers recognize that the CEO / board does not value the change as long as they satisfy the existing values, and judges that they can get away with not adopting the new culture as long as they deliver on the old. All too often they are right. Brian Chesky seems genuinely disturbed by the depth of discrimination, and its impact on the platform and its users. He also appears humble in his acknowledgement that they need outside, expert help, and he is willing to pay for top talent. All encouraging signs.
  • How much do you “care” vs. how much will you give up? When cultural change begins, there are often some easy wins, where we can change the culture without having to sacrifice anything of the old values. Then, inevitably we reach a crossroads where something of the old values is directly opposed with the new values. In moments like these, people look up to see what the people they respect do. Do they delay the launch of a new feature because there is still bias within it or do they stick to the timeline to make budget? Do they discontinue a beloved but problematic practice or fight to reform it? The second that a leader chooses the old over the new, change is capped at that tradeoff rate until further notice. We will have to wait and see “exchange rate” the leaders of Airbnb settle on.

2) Empowerment of the Change Makers

  • The people leading the change are empowered. All too often, cultural movements are added to the plates of cultural leaders in the company that have other functional roles. Even when there is a dedicated HR professional tasked, with depressing regularity, they are not given the resources and “teeth” they need to carry out their assignment. Bringing in an experienced outside professional, and the very choice of Laura Murphy, to be at the helm of this project signals that they are looking for someone who is experienced at bucking heads with established dynamics. She has been empowered to a degree larger than most executives charged with cultural change projects, given her ability to create new roles and spend a considerable amount of money to secure high-profile partners from the public sector and academia. She also set fairly aggressive timelines to achieve certain hard metrics, which is a great way to provide accountability and to gain credibility within a high-innovation sector that responds well to discrete demands. If she is able to accomplish what the report sets out, she will make some real progress… and some waves!
  • This looks great in a press release, how is it in daily life? In bringing in outside help and publishing the report that they did, Airbnb is doing all the right things to change their image. While this is a great step, and one that too few companies take, the real work has not fully begun. It remains to be seen how integrated these diversity teams will be in the fabric of the company, and how empowered to make change they will truly be. Will punishments be meted out of goals are not met on time or will financially successful teams be immune? Will employees be actively interfacing with the diversity teams to bring up issues they see and learn about new research or will they passively receive training when required? If “good people” (by the old standards) are not ready to face these issues, how many of them is leadership willing to lose to attrition before they start to get antsy? It will be interesting to see if Airbnb truly knows what it has signed up for in hiring Ms. Murphy, and we will see at what stage (if any), leadership attempts to reign in her and her team’s influence.

3) Acknowledgement of Own Fault

  • Airbnb admitted that they were wrong. When bad things happen, we often grab for scapegoats. Many leaders in particular struggle to admit their past wrongs and current shortcomings because they believe it will make them look weak and they will lose power. However, when done right, acknowledging your own weaknesses makes you more relatable as a leader and can inspire a kind of loyalty that the illusion of perfection cannot. Moreover, it is the only way to learn from your weaknesses and move past them. Both in terms of admitting the lack of diversity in their workforce, and their delayed response to diversity issues on their platform, Mr. Chesky took a courageous leap in being up front with his own diversity baggage, and Ms. Murphy took a courageous leap in presenting a report that acknowledged Airbnb’s and Mr. Chesky’s baggage. Not to mention all the other people whose own self-knowledge and conviction assisted in the environment that led to the creation of the document, from the discriminated users to the press to the researchers and many, many more. It would have been easy to publish a report blaming the discriminatory users or American society or the platform, or not publish one at all. But by publishing this report, they owned up to the fact that Airbnb itself was and is a part of the problem, and the first step to moving out of dysfunctional cycle is to admit your hand in its perpetuation. THEY SHOULD BE APPLAUDED FOR THIS!
  • Some can talk about it; do all understand it? Seeing that there is a problem, understanding that you are part of it, and acknowledging that you do not have the tools to solve it alone is the first and often most difficult step to make a deep life change. There is a reason why it is the first step in the 12 step program, and there is a reason why it takes so long for so many addicts to reach it. It is clear that Ms. Murphy, and to a certain degree Mr. Chesky, recognize some of the problems within Airbnb. However, it remains to be seen how widely this acknowledgement has happened in the entire company. Have people (other than the CEO) truly sat with their actions and understood the extent to which their actions were limited by their bias or will they say that the burden stops at Mr. Chesky? Will people become increasingly humble as the program exposes more and more how their limited views created discrimination or will they wear the program as a badge of honor and stop questioning how they are continuing to perpetuate discrimination? It remains to be seen how ready and willing the rest of the company is to confront their own baggage, and how deeply they are willing to dive into it. And this does not even begin to talk about the other 11 steps!

4) Engagement of users

  • They showed a willingness to make discriminatory users uncomfortable.Changing the behavior of people you pay is one thing, and changing the behavior of people that pay you is entirely another. In general, institutions of all kinds fight so hard to get customers to a point that they are willing to pay for a service, that their leaders are terrified of doing anything to upset that seemingly tenuous connection that is keeping their company afloat. Even when the customers are clearly doing something wrong, the “customer is always right” mentality often wins out, particularly when one is dealing with a group of customers that is used to getting what they want. People with economic, racial, gender, or any other kind of power are used to getting what they want. Unless they consciously counteract it, the privileged will be scared that if they make themselves vulnerable to the marginalized, the marginalized will take advantage of their momentary display of weakness. While this is very nearly always not grounded in reality, it is a ubiquitous belief. Some of Airbnb’s changes, like lengthening the non-discrimination policy and optional, online trainings, may help to educate people already interested in addressing their biases but will not force anyone to be uncomfortable. However, I believe some of their changes, including the proposed encouragement of auto-booking and changes to cancellation (middle of page 22 and number 4 on page 20 respectively), will create dissonance in the minds of people who are using that tactic. Some will leave Airbnb, most will find a new way to discriminate, and a precious few may start to confront their unfounded fears and start to be more open minded. Too few for-profit companies engage in creating dissonance in their customers to make them grow (rather than to simply give them money). Airbnb is taking a courageous first step in doing this to a group that rarely, if ever, is made to feel uncomfortable for these particular actions and beliefs.
  • … You call that uncomfortable? As is the case in our society at large, people without power are made to feel uncomfortable in ways that those with power are not. Therefore, a situation that feels painfully inconvenient (or painful) to a privileged person is laughably trifling for someone who goes through much worse pain every day. Often people who are used to experiencing discrimination come to expect it, and do not miss a beat when it happens, contorting themselves to get what they need out of a system that is not responsive to them. But people who are used to getting their way often make a fuss and insist on others meeting them where they are. A combination of “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and response to power takes effect, and the slight traumas of the powerful are tended to while the massive traumas of the powerless are shrugged off. The degree of marginalization of people of color, LGBT people, and other discriminated groups will continue to far outweigh the degree of marginalization of their oppressors on Airbnb given these material but modest changes. Therefore, Airbnb should be applauded for pushing to shift that equilibrium slightly on their platform, but this applause should not be mistaken for a job well done. Rather it is encouragement for their temporary decision to attempt to open their eyes to some of the systematic injustice they have had a hand in perpetuating, and try to change themselves. May their decision persevere.

5) Adoption of an iterative process

  • They recognized that diversity work is an ongoing process. The changing of consciousness occurs at different speeds and in different ways for different people, and it is a process of seeking that does not end. In the creation of the report, they have done a good job recognizing and addressing the most pressing issues facing Airbnb today. In the hiring of Ms. Murphy, the creation of dedicated anti-discrimination teams, and the consultation of experts, they have made a credible investment in finding and solving the problems of tomorrow. If the diversity teams continue to be empowered to the extent the report suggests they will be, they will hopefully allow them to ferret out discriminatory havens in the company and the platform before they are allowed to do too much damage.
  • Here today, gone tomorrow? The simple creation of roles and one-time investment in experts by no means guarantees that this level of engagement in diversity work will continue. The issues they have identified are just the manifestation of the biases of its users and its own employees as they are today. It will be impossible for them to eradicate all bias of anyone in the company and interfacing with the platform, so as they close some of the loopholes being most used, more will come up. We live in a society that is addicted to the completion of a discrete project, and it is easy to fall into a pitfall of believing that we can “solve” bias, particularly when one uses a metric based approach. Will leadership continue to support these diversity initiatives even after the metrics in this first report are met or will their zeal wane if they reach a level of competency that gets them out of the media spotlight?

All in all, Airbnb needs to be applauded for taking this first step. Too often, people are subconsciously overwhelmed by a problem as vast as discrimination and feel that they have no hope of finding a smooth path forward, so they just ignore it in the hopes that the spotlight will fall on someone else. When the spotlight does fall on you, it is a chance to permanently change this mindset. Similar to a community service sentence for a misdemeanor, the vast majority of people do and say the right thing when they are being scrutinized, but when their time is up they revert to old ways. But sometimes one has an experience that really does change the course of their lives. Taking the first blind leap of faith by saying “I know that I am damaged and I do not know how to fix myself, please help me” is an extremely courageous act, and one that is often brushed off both by those who are still unwilling to take that step and by those who took it a long time ago. It is the first step in letting this learning sink down to a deeper level of consciousness and it almost always brings a pit to one's stomach. If done right, Airbnb’s work is far from done, but this is the first step in a journey that can lead to true change.

I applaud everyone who was involved in the taking of this first courageous step, and I look forward to watching how things progress!