Companies May Think They Have Integrity Until They Get Skewered

August 4, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses have made tough decisions that have earned them goodwill and loyalty from employees and consumers alike, while others have made decisions that they will be explaining away for years. The main difference? Integrity. Integrity is the focus of Robert Chesnut’s latest book, Intentional Integrity (July 28, 2020). Rob was recently interviewed by St. Martin’s Press in anticipation of the book’s release. This excerpt is reprinted by permission.

In response to the Coronavirus Pandemic, you updated your book with a chapter on leading with integrity during a crisis. What lessons have we learned?

Rob Chesnut:
A crisis fire-tests the character of a company. Trust can be formed, and broken, during these stressful times. It can be challenging to know where to direct your attention, but these three things should be a priority:

  • Put the health and safety of your employees first. A crisis can strain relationships with employees who may have legitimate concerns about their health and safety if they are still on the job. Anxiety tends to run high as people fear layoffs and many struggle with isolation or juggling parental responsibility while working remotely. It is a time to care about your people in a very human way.
  • Think about how you can work with all your stakeholders. Investors will obviously be concerned that the crisis will put a huge financial strain on many businesses. But you should also be thinking about how your suppliers, your vendors, your customers, and the communities where you operate are also suffering.
  • Creativity pays off. What we observed is that many businesses have resources that enable them to pivot quickly, responding to new needs or developing entirely new business models. We saw production lines change to make PPE, hand sanitizer, and ventilators; restaurants move to take out; and personal trainers and music teachers giving remote video sessions.

How will intentional integrity protect employees from the bad decisions of individuals and fix pervasive corporate cultures that enable abuse of power, like we saw in the #metoo movement?

Rob Chesnut:
Intentional integrity is a proactive concept that sets the right tone at a company and creates a culture where it’s clear to everyone how to act. Bad behavior is contagious––if people see leaders acting badly, it enables them to rationalize acting badly themselves. But integrity is contagious as well. If employees get a clear message up front about what the company stands for and how the employees are expected to treat each other, and leaders live up to that message with their actions, you’ll avoid a lot of the bad behavior you’re seeing now. You won’t avoid all of it. We’re human, we make mistakes. People will do things that violate the letter and spirit of the intentional integrity culture that each company creates, and that’s normal. Companies must create an environment where everyone is comfortable reporting bad behavior, there’s a trusted process for investigating that bad behavior, and employees––all employees––are held accountable with appropriate consequences.

You write that “you can’t outsource integrity,” and that to be authentic, pervasive, and persuasive, integrity must come directly from an organization’s leadership. If you could give one piece of advice to every CEO, what would it be?

Rob Chesnut:
Look at integrity not as a roadblock to getting things done, but a potential superpower. You set the tone by your words and actions. Embrace that responsibility as an important element of your job. Understand that when you act with integrity and encourage others to do the same, there’s a powerful ripple effect that goes throughout your company and into the community that will build trust and give you a long-term business advantage.


Rob Chesnut, most recently chief ethics officer and former general counsel of Airbnb, Inc., is the author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, July 28, 2020) Original full interview credit: St. Martin’s Press.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of Virginia, he worked for 14 years with the U.S. Justice Department, where he prosecuted bank robbers, kidnappings, murders, and espionage cases. He joined eBay in 1999 as its third lawyer and founded its Trust and Safety team. He joined Airbnb in 2016, overseeing a team of approximately 125 legal professionals in over 20 offices around the world. It is there that he developed a popular interactive employee program, Integrity Belongs Here, to help drive compliance throughout the culture at the company.