Does Your Corporate Culture Inspire Accountability?

Recently, a family from New Zealand booked a home for a vacation in Ireland using Airbnb, the popular online peer-to-peer property rental service. When the family showed up at the property, however, they got an unpleasant surprise. They discovered that the owner of the house had set up a live video feed by means of a concealed camera. Believe it or not, that wasn’t the biggest problem that showed up in this story. The biggest problem had to do, not with a single bad host, but with accountability and corporate culture — with how Airbnb treated the family when it reported the problem.

One of the critical elements of any effective approach to leadership is the commitment “My word is my bond.” The best leaders know that they owe accountability to this commitment both to the people they employ, and to the customers the company serves. And this is one place where the corporate culture issue clearly comes into play, because Airbnb explicitly guarantees its users that the properties they rent on the Airbnb platform are not going to be bugged with clandestine listening or video devices.

Yet when the family called Airbnb to report what had happened, the front-line person who handed the call seemed totally unaware of that commitment…and told the family that if they cancelled at that point, they’d end up losing their money. In other words, the front-line person treated this major violation of the family’s privacy as though it were no particular big deal — as though it were the family’s problem to work out! This was a failure of training — a failure of leadership – – and a sign that there is something wrong with the accountability and the corporate culture at Airbnb.

The family ended up having to secure quarters at a hotel in the same area. Airbnb “didn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the issue,” one of the family members told CNN. “They were treating it like a canceled booking.”

According to CNN, two whole weeks went by, and the family heard nothing about its complaint. When they finally reached out again to Airbnb, they were told that the homeowner who had rented the property to them had been “exonerated.” How can this happen?

The family then took their problem online. They posted about what had happened to them on Facebook, and multiple news outlets started covering the story.

Only when bad publicity started to circulate did Airbnb acknowledge that there was a major privacy issue that needed to be addressed. Up to that point, they had been routinely ignoring a legitimate — and serious — complaint from a customer about an instance where Airbnb had not kept its word to its customers. That’s yet another symptom of a corporate culture that’s out of whack: Waiting to do the right thing until there’s a PR crisis.

Eventually, someone further up the organizational chart corrected the error, made things right with the family, and banned the property owner…but if you’re Airbnb, that’s really nothing to cheer about. There is a systemic problem here. The organization’s values need to be taught, reinforced, and rewarded at every level of the organization. That isn’t happening at Airbnb. How do I know? Because someone chose to act as if nothing was wrong when a hidden camera was reported!

Every single member of the team needs to be able to make great decisions. They can only do that in a corporate culture where values like “Our word is our bond” and “We fix problems promptly when they arise” have been well defined and taught, up and down the line. Clearly, that isn’t the norm here — which says to me that Airbnb’s corporate culture is still broken, and that there’s a very good chance a similar, or even identical problem, is somewhere on the horizon, waiting to happen.

Does your corporate culture inspire accountability? The answer lies in how your team responds to challenges and customer complaints. Their decisions in such situations will tell you a lot about what your working culture really is. If there were a comparable customer problem at your organization, how certain would you be that your front-line employees would handle it properly? How confident would you be about their ability to make the right decisions? What values would guide them? If you don’t know…you need to find out.

Another big takeaway here is a simple one: The right thing to do is the right thing to do, whether or not the cameras are rolling. If you and your organization are only keeping your commitments and being accountable when there is a PR crisis, that’s the same thing as not being accountable at all!

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