Intentional Integrity In An Ethical Revolution With Rob Chesnut

They say that integrity is how you act when no one is watching, but how does that work in a world where everyone’s watching? In this episode, Rob Chesnut joins Dr. Diane Hamilton to discuss his stance on how to intentionally drive integrity and ethics into the culture of a company. Rob is the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. He talks about developing a code of ethics and how to recover from committing an ethical misstep. He also shares what he thinks about confirmation bias, and goes into the six C’s mentioned in his book, Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution.

TTL 729 | Intentional Integrity


We have Rob Chesnut here. Rob is the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb and he is the author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead In An Ethical Revolution. We’re going to talk about ethics and a little bit of how we’re dealing with all this crisis.

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Intentional Integrity In An Ethical Revolution With Rob Chesnut

I am here with Rob Chesnut, who is the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb, a role he took on in late 2019 after nearly four years as the company’s General Counsel. He previously led eBay’s North America legal team, where he founded the internet’s first eCommerce person-to-person platform Trust and Safety team. He was the General Counsel at Chegg for nearly six years. He served fourteen years with the US Justice Department where he prosecuted CIA employee Aldrich Ames for espionage. He is the author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead In An Ethical Revolution. It’s so nice to have you on the show, Rob.

Diane, thanks for having me.

You’re welcome. I was looking forward to this. We talked a little bit and I have taught quite a bit in different business realms and some of it I teach in terms of ethics. Ethics is such a great topic. I’m looking forward to what got you interested in the route you took to becoming legal counsel and all these things you’ve done. You’ve got an interesting backstory. If you want to share that, I’d love to know it.

I was the General Counsel at Airbnb and I noticed that the world was changing. Behavior that was going unnoticed and are swept under the rug was now being put front and center. Look at Facebook and Google. It seemed that companies were increasingly being called out for not doing the right thing and their leaders as well. It was having a big impact on brands. It struck me. I sat down with the Founder of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, and talk to him about this. I said, “One of the big risks we have as a company is the world examining Airbnb and finding ethical flaws. What can we do to be more proactive?” Brian is big on this idea of being a positive force in the world. We didn’t have any answers that day but as I left, he looked at me and said, “Go big.” That led me to this focus on, how do you drive integrity into the culture of a company?

It’s an interesting debate because in a lot of the courses I teach, we talk about the difference between laws and ethics and then doing business in a worldwide cultural atmosphere where you have a good intent here in the United States to do a certain thing, but maybe you open an office somewhere else. You’ve got a different code of ethics, which areas code do you go by? We learned from shoemakers who’d wanted to give one free pair of shoes that it would kill the economy sometimes to give a free pair of shoes. How do you know how to create a code of ethics if it’s subjective?

Let’s look at how a lot of companies get their code of ethics. Many of them simply go to the internet and find another company. Download the code of ethics and then email it out to the entire company and they said, “Check a box.” That doesn’t send a message that the code of ethics is very important. Everybody knows it. To get a code of ethics in place, that means something. First of all, you have to buy-in from the very top of the company as if the CEO isn’t bought in. What you do is you get a diverse group of people from across the world and different areas of the company. Somebody from marketing, sales, Ireland office, Spain office, because diverse companies have a great strength because of all the different perspectives that are brought to the table, but that diversity can also create some challenges when you’re talking about creating a code and figuring out the right way to treat people. A great example at Airbnb is hugging.

TTL 729 | Intentional Integrity
Intentional Integrity: Customers, suppliers, and vendors are all partners in your business. You need to think about how your actions impact them.


Can you hug somebody at work anymore? I’ve asked CEOs that question. I had one jump back and say, “I would not touch a woman at work anymore.” I said, “A woman? What about a man? What makes you think that a woman’s touch might have sexual connotations than a man, particularly in the 21st-century company?” The truth is a lot of leaders don’t think about this thing. We asked the question at Airbnb, “Can you hug anymore?” Over in Europe, a lot of the European offices said, “We hug each other every day. We greet each other with all the hugs and a kiss on the cheek.” They look at me like, “Rob, that’s not something we’re comfortable with. Don’t touch me.” The way that you deal with it is you have to listen to everyone. In Airbnb, the rule is very simple, touching someone is an act of consent. I’ll just welcome it.

How do you gather that consent?

There are several ways you can do. One, you can ask, “Can I give you a hug?” It’s obvious where someone greets you with open arms and smiles. You can look at the circumstances but particularly the more senior leader has got to understand that because they’re a hugger, it doesn’t mean that everybody in the entire company is going to be a hugger. You have to be open to the fact that the other person may want a handshake and that’s going to have to be okay. You cannot assume that touching is something that is going to work culturally around the world.

That’s a good point. In some places, they don’t want to be touched in certain ways. That’s not their custom or whatever but even with the COVID going on, should we even be shaking hands for any right reason?

It could be a long time. I’ve seen some videos of people that have started doing foot shakes. Instead of a handshake, somebody reached out your right foot, give it a little tap with a shoe. We’ve longed for a little bit of human connection. That’s normal but in this new world, we’re going to have to make adjustments.

It’s such a strange time. It’s challenging for companies to get their culture established right at the top. As you said, if the top doesn’t buy-in then what they should be doing ethical means anything like that, behaviorally will flow down. A lot of companies do come up with these codes. They copy off on the internet or whatever. Even Enron had a code of ethics. It sounded great if you read it.

I read WeWork’s code of ethics. The first line talked about how they operate with integrity but I’m afraid that those codes of ethics are buried in the back of an HR manual. They’re not talked about in a human way. In many cases, leaders aren’t talking about them and then acting out what they talk about.

I remember interviewing Dina Dwyer-Owens, she wrote a book called Values, Inc. a while back and she’s the CEO. She was talking about how they talk about their values in every single meeting, like what we’re talking about in this meeting? How does it tie into what we believe and think? Can you overdo it?

Perhaps it’s possible to overdo it. I haven’t seen that happen. More often what I see is a company that doesn’t ever talk about their values. How frequently is it that profit becomes their purpose? All they talk about are the numbers. What’s the revenue looking like? How are the sales numbers going? Are we going to hit our earnings number? What’s the street’s reaction going to be? What we need to recognize in the 21st-century company, numbers and finances are important but a good company has to run with multiple stakeholders.

You need to recognize that your employees are stakeholders. The customers, community, even your suppliers and vendors are all your partners in your business. You need to be thinking about how your actions impact them. Let’s take employees, they want to be inspired when they go to work every day. They want to be at a place where they feel like they can make a difference in the world. In the old world, if things were going on that didn’t seem right or they didn’t like, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. In today’s world, there’s the internet.

If an employee sees something, they don’t like at a particular company in Glassdoor or an app like Blind. They’ll organize and walkout. They are increasingly empowered to let companies know that if the company’s actions aren’t in accordance with their personal values, they’re going to speak up about it. Customers are doing the same thing. Customers are speaking out on a whole wide variety of internet sites and they’re moving their dollars. They want to spend money at places that have values that align with their own. The world, more than ever, is watching. There’s a famous quote that integrity is about doing the right thing even when no one is watching. What’s happening is everybody’s always watching. Your employees, customers, and the government are watching. There’s a lot more pressure on leaders to act with integrity because if you don’t, you’re going to get called out on it in a multitude of forms and it’s going to kill your brand.

Interestingly, you talk about being called out or speaking out and some of the terms you use, because I deal with helping develop curiosity within corporations all the time. Those who contact me get it but some of the leaders I’ve talked to in other situations, I’ve seen them. They’re concerned letting people ask questions and be curious because they don’t want them to know too much, get them off course, or they’re afraid of the impact of losing that control. What do you say to somebody like that?

A lot of times people are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid it’s going to be controversial. Look at what’s happened with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The world isn’t letting you remain silent anymore because silence is perceived as indifference. Silence is perceived as you don’t care or even worse. More and more, that is something that customers and employees aren’t willing to stand for. What you got to do as a leader is you’ve got to get over your fear of speaking up about things that are controversial. You got to get over your fear of encouraging other people to talk and your fear of listening because it does require giving up perhaps a little bit of what you see as power. There’s a tremendous amount of power in listening and then inspiring others with thinking about more than just your bottom line profit money.

[bctt tweet=”The world is changing. Behavior that was going unnoticed or swept under the rug is now being put front and center.” via=”no”]

You bring up some interesting things that I’ve talked about on the show. As you’re mentioning with all of the race issues that we’re seeing, Ben & Jerry’s came out with their statement supporting Black Lives Matter and different things. It got a lot of positive attention. Sometimes you’ve seen some marketing campaigns come out that they had hoped to be a positive thing. Gillette, for example, had a marketing campaign that’s backfired on them, or did it? Any press is good press, I don’t know. I’ve liked your input and how you compare those two, and how effective they were.

People can see right through it if you have a carefully crafted and calm statement that your PR firm put together. What people look for are a couple of things. Number one, when you do talk about the issue as a company, is it in your company’s voice? Is it something that is authentic to the way that your company talks? Ben & Jerry’s statement is a great example of a company that speaks with a particular style and a particular voice. Their statement on racial injustice rang very authentically because it sounded very much like the culture of that company. Another thing that you look for in these statements is all their specifics. Does the statement contain something that shows that the company understands the issue and is truly committed to doing some specific things to be involved in a positive way? Flowery statements that have a high-level, “We stand with Black Lives Matter.” That’s nice, but people are going to go to the next question like, “What are you going to do about it?”

The third is that people look at history. Is this a company that has ever spoken out on this issue before or have their past actions been inconsistent with their new view on things? Ben & Jerry is another great example. They put out an ice cream flavor that was designed to highlight racial inequality. This is something Ben & Jerry’s has been talking about for decades. Even Nike comes under some criticism for their various ethical issues, but they put out a campaign, “Just Don’t Do It” that spoke to racial inequality. Nike was upfront on this issue as well. They were very supportive of Colin Kaepernick when it wasn’t popular to support Colin Kaepernick. Those are the three things you look for with company statements. When you put something out, be careful because if you sound like you’re too high and mighty, and you have a lot of integrity, people are going to call you on it if you’ve behaved differently in the past.

They did that to Gillette with some of the areas. Twitter was brutal if you were watching that at that time. How do you recover from unethical misstep? Social media were brutal at times and they keep you in line which can be good.

Integrity is not perfection. If integrity were perfection, then none of us would have integrity. What people look for in these circumstances where you’ve made a mistake is, do you have any self-awareness? Do you have the courage to come out and say, “We didn’t handle that very well? Here are a few things we’ve done in the past that we’re not proud of. Here’s why those actions are inconsistent with what we want to be. We apologize because we realize that the old way didn’t work and we are committed to a new course.” You can’t gloss over or ignore things that you’ve done in the past that are inconsistent with your statements. I do believe that if you have the courage in a human authentic way, have self-awareness and recognize that you made a mistake, the world will be a lot more forgiving.

I liked that you bring up self-awareness since I study emotional intelligence and it’s a great topic. I loved having Daniel Goleman on the show and a lot of others that are talking about that. This isn’t a political show and I don’t want to put you on the spot but I’m curious about what you think of the political divide we’re seeing. There’s so much split of what we consider our leaders. Do they have self-awareness? Is there a sense of leadership in government? How is that trickling down to companies?

[bctt tweet=”Diverse companies have a great strength because of all the different perspectives brought to the table.” via=”no”]

I’m discouraged about what I see in politics. I see so much in the way of actions and statements that are designed to inflame, that intentionally divide. The reason for the division is people are trying to get their side inflamed and rally behind, when in reality there should be one side. That one side is our country or to be honest, even the world. We’ve got a lot of problems that are not going to get solved with partisan politics, the way that we’ve been operating. They’re not going to be solved with individual countries pointing fingers and fighting with each other. We are increasingly interconnected and interdependent. Look at the pandemic and climate change. We have to recognize that if we’re going to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, we’re going to have to stop dividing, start uniting, and come up with practical solutions because being divided means that we’re going to be bickering and pointing fingers, and we’re not going to be solving.

That brings up confirmation bias quite a bit. I was thinking of your book has six C’s that makes up a foundation. I’m thinking of another C for you here.

That will be the sequel.

What do you think about confirmation bias when we’re developing this code of ethics and how we make up our minds about certain things? Is it up to our company to set the stage for what we should believe? How much do you get input from employees and how much are we impacting our employees in other aspects?

You need to listen. Often, when I was dealing with ethical issues at Airbnb, you don’t want to set yourself up as Moses with the stone tablets, “Here are the rules, everybody. This is the way that I see the world. Therefore, this is what everybody must follow.” At Airbnb, we established a group of ethics advisors. There are 30 of them all around the world. They’ve got day jobs. They’re in sales, customer support, and finance. Any code of ethics is not going to be able to anticipate every problem. We have problems that come up all the time that require some judgment and interpretation.

If you’re one person making up the rules and making all the decisions, you’re going to make mistakes. What I’ve learned is when we put these issues before the group of ethics advisors, we get some fascinating perspectives. Some things that I never thought of because of the way that I was raised. We need to be open. If you want to get credibility inside of a company, you’ve got to show that you’re willing to listen and incorporate new ways of thinking. When you do that, you get a certain level of credibility inside the company and you’re able to move forward.

If you’re talking about this, I’m thinking of some of the issues that even in some of the classes I teach. The situations I’ve had in the working world, I can think of a particular discussion we have in a class where, do you buy products from a company where they have child labor if it helps their economy? If you stopped buying then what happens? Do you do business in a country where it’s common practice to bribe officials? Here in the United States, you can’t do that. What do you do in those situations if you’re a global business?

You raised an excellent point that ethics often can be in the eyes of the beholder. We can always look at what we are doing and rationalize. It’s okay to pay a little bit of money in order to get this particular license because that’s the way you’ve got to do business in a particular country. Those sorts of rationalizations lead you into trouble. What you need to do is to have the self-awareness to recognize that sometimes doing the right thing is the hard thing. Not let yourself to talk yourself into saying that the wrong thing is okay. I had a great talk with a guy named Dan Ariely. He’s a behavioral scientist at Duke University. He studies dishonesty and ethics. He’s a great thinker.

One thing we talked about is that the most creative people, the smartest people are the ones most prone to having ethical lapses. Why? Because they are able to rationalize their actions. They’re able to come up with reasons why doing something is okay far better than the rest of us. If they’re particularly creative in their job, they can be very creative in figuring out a way to make themselves feel okay about a particular action. Sometimes, it takes self-awareness and courage to rise above that and recognize, “That’s simply wrong and we can’t operate that way.”

TTL 729 | Intentional Integrity
Intentional Integrity: The most creative and smartest people are the ones most prone to having ethical lapses.


Are we getting into too much of “fake it until you make it society” where we want the big unicorn companies? People expect you to make things bigger and different than they are in some respects.

That thinking is failing and the world is seeing through it and pushing for something better than that. I do think that for decades, because of this focus on all that matters is the profit and shareholder. It encouraged that thinking, but that thinking has gotten us in the sorts of problems we have where companies are focused on making money but they’re not thinking about the factory that’s polluting the air and creating climate change issues. It’s not thinking about the impact of their cost-cutting measures on employees. In many cases, they’re not even thinking about what’s the right thing for their customers. They’re thinking about that quarterly number to keep driving up that share price. That’s the thinking that’s dangerous and being discredited. People want more than that from companies.

You see a lot of companies take a huge hit when they have ethical crises. We’ve seen some issues with Uber. Things come back to bite you with everything that’s going on in the workplace. It’s very challenging for a lot of companies because they’re doing work in a different way. I’ve worked virtually for most of my career. I was in pharmaceuticals, where you had to work virtually when I was young. It’s interesting how companies send certain messages when you work virtually. I can remember in pharmaceuticals, for example. They would say, “We expect you to work eight hour days. If you’re not, you’re fired.” They’d give you enough work to last two hours so what do you do? How do you help people work virtually, give them reasonable goals, and not put them in that situation where they have to lie?

We’re all navigating this new world of remote work. We’re finding some things about it that we like. We’re finding that it may have a number of challenges that we never anticipated. It’s going to be fascinating as a vaccine comes out and as we can safely get back working together in the same office. It’s going to be fascinating to see how much people go back into the office and enjoy the daily interaction of being together or how much they enjoy the remote workforce, no commute, and being able to work from anywhere. I don’t think the answer is clear yet but it may have a profound effect on several industries like commercial real estate.

One thing I worry about is human connection. Even though Airbnb is a tech company, its mission at its core is about helping human beings establish human connection when they travel, get out of the Western hotels and Starbucks. Get out, meet people, and get to know an area when you travel. All of us are yearning for human connection. A downside of the internet era is that we spend so much time behind a computer and we don’t spend enough time interacting with other human beings. We will be yearning for more human connection coming out of the pandemic. We may find ourselves back in the office operating much the same way we did before.

It is going to be an interesting time. I like the idea of getting insight from employees. A lot of what I work with companies is having people break down those barriers to let employees ask questions to provide insights. I love that you said that Airbnb embraces curiosity. How did they do that? I’m curious. What is the culture like in terms of curiosity there?

The culture is set at the top, particularly at a founder-led company. Airbnb has three founders, Brian, Nate, and Joe. Brian is the CEO and he is an extremely curious leader. I’ve never met anybody quite like him. Brian did not go to business school. He was a design student. He has a very creative side. His parents are social workers. He looks at the world a little bit differently and what he’s done. I’ve seen leaders at some tech companies when the company becomes large, they take on this perspective of, “I’m smart. I figured a lot of things out.”

Brian uses the fact that he’s the CEO at Airbnb as an opportunity to be able to pick up the phone, talk to other leaders, and pick their brain. He is constantly bringing in leaders from other disciplines. He’s always on the phone talking to leaders from other parts of the world in politics, the military, and other areas of business. He believes that business can gain a lot if they listen to the way that other people operate. One thing I love about Airbnb is because he’s so curious, he encourages that curiosity with all the other leaders. That environment is invigorating.

It’s very contagious. Now that we’ve brought up confirmation bias and curiosity, let’s get to your six C’s that you had in your book because I alluded to it earlier. Curiosity is critical for success but as you’re deciding your terms for integrity, you say you got to start at the top. Let’s start with the first of the six C’s. Can you go a little bit into that?

[bctt tweet=”Businesses can gain a lot if they listen to the way other people operate.” via=”no”]

When you’re dealing with integrity, you can’t infuse a company with integrity if the CEO and leadership of the company aren’t bought in. They’ve got to believe it’s important. They’ve got to be able to speak out about and talk about it with employees. Only then will employees believe that it’s true. I used to teach an orientation class at Airbnb when I was the General Counsel there. Every week, I would go in and do a one hour talk with the new employees. When I first started doing it, people looking at it said, “Rob, you’re the General Counsel and you’ve got 150 legal personnel all around the world. We’ve got a number of legal issues. How do you have the time to do it?”

The point was that after I would do these talks over and over again, people would say it in surveys and they would come up to me and say, “It is so refreshing to see a leader take this issue seriously. The fact that the General Counsel is talking about this sends a clear message that leadership is serious about integrity.” If you sense a mid-level HR person in while the CEO and the leaders of the company are acting differently and they’re not acting with integrity, then you look at critical. Integrity has to start at the top. That’s the first thing.

You will then customize your code of ethics, as we mentioned before. You don’t copy them from the internet.

You put together a group of people in the company and put it in your own voice. The core tenant at Airbnb is about creating belonging for customers when they travel. The name of our code is integrity belongs here. It goes from there throughout the language of the entire code. The individual elements of it are tailored to think about Airbnb’s business. A code of ethics is something you need to take seriously because it’s got to reflect your values and your mission.

You have to communicate it well as we’ve talked about in the past. It’s interesting I’ve worked for a company where they gave us CDs or DVDs or whatever they were and then we watched on either the computer or something. I remember I had to memorize the values for this company. It was three pages, they print it out for me, and they made us do a video of it. It’s so funny there were grammatically incorrect sentences. It drove me crazy, but it was a good thing to do. As a professor at me, I wanted to do it in red and mark it back and give it to them. I love that they were trying to communicate their code. That’s what you say is the third C’s.

Often the code gets buried in the back of an HR manual. After you check an electronic box saying you’ve read it. You have to do it in a variety of different ways. One way that we do it at Airbnb are videos. A lot of integrity-related videos are these slickly-produced third-party videos that everybody is forced to watch on topics like sexual harassment. The problem is that you can’t outsource integrity. You can’t have third-parties take your voice and send the message because it doesn’t ring sear. What we did at Airbnb is we created our videos. We did one a month and the videos were short, only about 3 or 4 minutes long each because what we’ve found is that people nowadays want the message quickly.

An hour and they’ll start to click and it won’t make an impression. If you can make your message like, “Chris, get away from the legalese.” Talk to them in plain English and use humor. The production is terrible. We did them on iPhone and there are no script. The acting is terrible. Employees would volunteer to want to act in these videos. We send them out once a month. They’re not required. In a typical month, 1,500 to 2,000 employees will voluntarily watch an Airbnb ethics video because you make an effort to have a little bit of humor and you infuse it with an authentic Airbnb voice. That sends the message that this matters to us.

You see many scripted things that are so perfectly produced but I love the idea of having it be more real and fun, new people you recognize and the people you know. The fourth of the six C’s was clear recording system. What do you mean by that?

You have to send a message that when things go off track or when you’ve got questions, there’s a place you can go to get answers and talk about things. People hate going to lawyers. They’re afraid of going to HR on things. That’s one of the reasons we created ethics advisors. These are people that got day jobs. They’re your friends in the office and the people you know. What we found in the first quarter of 2020, we got nearly 100 questions to ethics advisors during the first quarter alone. In many cases, if it weren’t for ethics advisors, we never would have gotten those questions. These are issues that come up that relate to integrity every day in the office. If you’ve got clear places to go, they’re friendly. You send a message that this stuff is important and we want to talk about it. It creates an environment of integrity. That’s what you’re shooting for.

As you’re bringing that up, it brings to mind, I teach a lot of HR based courses. A lot of people envision Toby from The Office when you hear HR. To me, HR can be fun and interesting to teach but does HR ever feel left out? How do you deal with that if you have this separate ethical situation like you mentioned?

They have to join in the fun. In other words, they have to be part of it. People from HR will have a laugh and participate in the videos as well. Like lawyers, they’ve got to work on the image of we’re here to help and listen. This is not a place that should be fearful. This is what we’re here for employees. This taking this tone and having a little bit of fun with things is something that helps them do their job better. They’ve been great partners in working in this area.

There are consequences and that’s your fifth C. What do you mean by consequences?

When there are ethical violations and there are going to be ethical violations in companies no matter what you do. People need to understand that there will be consequences. There will be consequences regardless of whether you are a high-level member of leadership or you are considered to be a star employee. There can’t be exceptions based upon who you are. There needs to real consequences but the consequences have to be tailored to the particular offense. You need to put thought. In effect, you’re running a mini justice system where there needs to be a fair investigation when there are allegations of improper action. People have to have confidence that the system is going to treat you fairly. If mistakes were made that there’s going to be a firmness mixed with empathy so that the consequences is appropriate. At companies, that can vary from an oral warning or a written warning to things like a demotion, a suspension without pay, or even termination but you can’t go there lightly. You have to do it with fairness.

As you’re saying that, I’m thinking of one of my first jobs. A month before turning eighteen, I took a job with a real fun guy, my boss but he wasn’t very ethical. You had to be eighteen to work there. He took my birth certificate and he changed it by one year to make me older. I didn’t know he did that, then they called me and I’m like, “What?” He didn’t get that much trouble but within about a month of that, I found out that he was reporting that our products were leaking. He was selling them into Mexico, and they got rid of him quickly. That was one of my first months in the working world to see the reality of the consequences of actions.

What message does it send if there’s a leader who is forging a document? It’s a signal that perhaps other behavior is going on and that there’s a belief that this thing is okay. That’s fascinating that somebody did that. It was caught in another ethical violation.

TTL 729 | Intentional Integrity
Intentional Integrity: You can’t infuse a company with integrity if the CEO and leadership of the company aren’t bought in.


They didn’t do much to him on that first one, which I thought they would but the second one, he was gone. That was about one month into the job. That was a very exciting month. It was unusual. I didn’t see a lot of that later, but it did teach me a lot about what was going on out there. I was so innocent watching this. I want to get into your sixth C, which is constant. What do you mean by constant?

Ethics is not something that you talk about once at orientation and then let it go. It has to be infused into the culture of the company. Having an understanding of what the mission of the company is, the purpose and again profit is not purpose. There has to be a reason to exist. There has to be something that you aren’t talking about on a regular basis through your emails, company meetings, and the regular communication channel that consistently sends a message about doing the right thing. Because so often, the only time you ever hear about the code of ethics is the day you start at the company when you get an email saying to check the box.

That is not going to give you the culture that you want. Constant drumbeat means that it has to be a part of doing business at your company. The great thing about it is that companies that operate with integrity, where ethics is a part of the way that they do business, the studies show that their financial performance is better than the market and better than their competitors. The interesting thing about it is making this a part of your company and the way that you operate is good for your bottom line as well.

A lot of people have learned from some of their mistakes. I had Bethany McLean on who wrote about Enron. Do you think that seeing they aren’t too big to fail stories can help people get some perspective? What does it take to get some of these unethical people like the Ken Lays of the world, Skillings, or whoever’s out there doing what they’re doing to see the value of it?

Having some big stories like that out there send a message. We have to get away from the old notion of shareholders. That’s created a lot of the problems where if a company believes that the only thing they have to do is do what’s right for the shareholders. That gives them an excuse and pushes them toward what’s this quarter’s bottom line number one? If the number is not right, it will encourage bad behavior to hit that number. Of course, it’s always very selfish because how are executives at companies compensated? They’re compensated based on the stock price. We’ve seen this in the last couple of years. We have to have an understanding that a stakeholder approach is the way that we need to operate.

The shareholders aren’t the only master in modern companies. Modern companies have an obligation to many more stakeholders. When companies realize, accept, and start running their business that way, we’re going to see longer-term thinking. We’re going to see executives who are not simply doing anything to hit a particular quarterly number, which is what happened in Enron and in so many of these other disasters. We’re going to have to start encouraging companies to think about what other metrics they need to operate on. By definition, that is going to take some pressure off and start encouraging more ethical behavior.

[bctt tweet=”Ethics is not something that you talk about once at orientation and then let it go. It has to be infused into the culture of the company.” via=”no”]

You mentioned how Brian Chesky looks to other leaders in different industries and different things. I thought I saw you talk about going to the NBA, Adam Silver, and getting some discussion from him. What did you learn from him?

One of the great things about writing a book on integrity is that a lot of people want to talk to you about it. Some great leaders like Carlos Santana, Adam Silver, and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Adam Silver impressed me and at his North Star have an understanding of thinking long-term and thinking about multiple stakeholders. He understands that the NBA players are critical stakeholders, are partners in the NBA business. When the pandemic hit and the first NBA player tested positive, he recognized that the health of the players had to be paramount because they are critical partners. Rather than doing a lot of hand wringing over how much money it was going to cost to halt the season, he did the right thing immediately. That sent a clear message to the players that Adam Silver cares about us.

That relationship of trust made it possible for the NBA and the players to work out an arrangement where they could come back to work. They have already reached an agreement where they’ll be able to continue the season in Disney World in a way that puts the health and safety of the players right upfront. What Adam Silver does well as a leader is he establishes relationships of trust with all the stakeholders in the NBA. When there’s a crisis, that trust can be the foundation for working through things in a way that’s good for everybody.

That’s so important. We have many leaders who have had to learn some of these lessons in a very fast timeframe, things that we’ve never faced before. I could see how your book came out at an opportune time in terms of helpful for people who are struggling with a lot of this stuff. I mentioned, your book title is Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead An Ethical Revolution. A lot of people are going to be interested in finding out more on what you wrote about and all your work in the book. How can they find you? How can they follow the book? Any links you’d like to share?

The name of the book is Intentional Integrity. It’s coming out at the end of July 2020. The book can be ordered on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all the usual book outlets. The website is I’m very active on LinkedIn. I’d encourage people to reach out to Rob Chesnut, connect with me and follow me. I try to post regularly on a variety of topics that relate to integrity.

This is such a fascinating discussion because many companies and leaders could benefit from this. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Rob. This was great. I enjoyed our conversation.

I enjoyed it, Diane. Thank you for giving me the time.

You’re welcome.

I want to thank Rob for being my guest. We get many interesting guests on the show and we got into many areas that overlap in some of the research I’m doing with curiosity and with the perception as we talked about confirmation bias. All of these things tie in together to have a good code of ethics. You have to ask questions, you have to be curious, and you have to look at things from multiple perspectives. That is understanding yourself and others, which is a big part of emotional intelligence. I know a lot of leaders recognize the value of emotional intelligence but sometimes they don’t think of things like this as tying into those kinds of decisions but that’s exactly what it is.

TTL 729 | Intentional Integrity
Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution

As we were talking about perspectives on diversity and the challenges involved, it’s important to ask questions and allow people to give insights. A lot of companies I hear from those that contact me, the leaders tell me, they want to have a culture of curiosity and they think that they create one that develops it. If you look at the research, I’ve had Francesca Gino and others on the show who have researched this area, although the leaders think that they inspire curiosity, most of the employees don’t agree with that or at least half of them, as I recall on what Francesca’s research showed.

It’s interesting to note what we can do to develop curiosity. What I was trying to do when I wrote the book Cracking The Curiosity Code was to write about curiosity. I was so fascinated by all the guests on the show and their ability to be curious and successful. I wanted to share what I learned. As I started to write the book, I realized that it was much more important to be able to determine what keeps people from being curious. You can take an assessment that tells you if you’re high or low level of curiosity but if you’re on a low level then what do you do? I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to create an assessment that was completely unique. What I did when I created the Curiosity Code Index was to determine the factors that keep you from being curious. If you could figure out what’s stopping you then you can make a plan to move forward.

I go to corporations and organizations and I help them recognize what holds people back. Individuals can create individual action plans and they’re able to do a personal SWOT analysis to come up with smart, measurable goals to overcome some of those issues that hold them back. When we do the training for the whole company in different groups, they create an action plan for leadership as well. A lot of leaders struggle with the company with communication issues and engagement issues, you name all the things that are top leadership topics. They all tie into curiosity. Curiosity is a spark to motivation to drive to innovation engagement, you name it. If you’ve got a problem with it, it probably comes back to the ability to ask questions and feel comfortable exploring. That’s what’s leading to status quo problems.

When we do these training courses, we do an exercise where we create an action plan for the company as a whole. Not only do the individual employees have their things to work on, but employees give a lot of insight to the leaders about, “Here are the ways you can help me be more curious to help you and us all become more motivated, driven, and engaged and all the things that we’re trying to work on in the working world.” How this all ties into what we were talking about on perception and confirmation bias and all those kinds of issues is when you’re looking at perception, curiosity ties in because you have to ask questions to develop that emotional intelligence, to get that empathy, to see things from somebody else’s perspective. You don’t know what you don’t know until you start asking questions.

We only see things through our lens and perception is a combination of not just curiosity quotient but cultural quotient, both CQs and IQ sometimes for critical thinking and all that and EQ. This is a great conversation based on what Rob and I were talking about how we have this self-awareness need to understand our issues. In emotional intelligence, there’s the self-awareness and the awareness of others of what others need. To develop all of that great perception, we need curiosity. On the website at, I have two different assessments. I have the Curiosity Code Index which you can take there as well. You go to if you want to go directly to it.

There’s also the Perception Power Index which is dealing with the steps and the processes we go through in creating our perceptions of our awareness of things. It’s a great assessment to determine what goes into this. Why are we coming up with these ideas? How can we talk about our perceptions? How can that help us make policies? If we have to work in foreign countries, how we can look at things? There’s another good interview on the show. If you haven’t read Joe Lurie‘s episode, he had a book on perception as well. The book I’m writing with Dr. Maja Zelihic, The Power Of Perception. There’s so much that we can learn on behavioral issues in the workplace.

It all ties into the soft skills and the things we talk about a lot in some of these meetings but we don’t measure them enough to be able to move forward. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to quantify some of this. This is what holds us back. This is what we need to talk about. This is how we can move forward. All of that information can be found on my site at You can also find past shows there if you’ve missed any past episodes. I hope you check out some of them. I mentioned a few. There are close to 1,000 people I’ve interviewed on the website and its amazing content. I hope you join us for the next episode.

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About Rob Chesnut

TTL 729 | Intentional IntegrityRob Chesnut is the Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb, a role he took on in late 2019 after nearly four years as the company’s General Counsel. He previously led eBay’s North America legal team, where he founded the Internet’s first ecommerce person to person platform Trust and Safety team. He was the general counsel at Chegg, Inc. for nearly 6 years, and he served 14 years with the U.S. Justice Department, where he prosecuted CIA employee Aldrich Ames for espionage. He is the author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution.



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