Foster a Culture of Integrity at Work

September 30, 2020

Book Review by Kristen Cudd

When opening a meeting for a group of fifty new hires, general counsel of Airbnb, Robert Chestnut, always asks the same seemingly simple question:

“Show of hands—who in this group has integrity?”

In any such group, several hands fly up immediately while others look around, seeking group approval for their self-proclaimed integrity. This prompt typically leads to a lively “mostly enjoyable but sometimes uncomfortable” discussion about integrity in the workplace.

Governments and people have grown “weary of corporate motives” given the frequency of “data privacy abuses, sexual misconduct, greedy self-dealing, and various other arrogant and entitled behavior.” Despite that bleak outlook, Chestnut believes that companies are poised to make real, meaningful change that benefits all stakeholders, from investors to citizens. In order to do that, “business leaders must embrace what he calls Intentional Integrity.” In Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution, Chestnut shows readers how to do that using a six-step process.

Code of Conduct

Individuals may assume that when faced with a compromising decision, they will choose what is right because of their personal moral or ethical code. The trouble is, within any organization there is an enormously diverse assortment of values, ethics, and morals associated with the vastly diverse workplace. Companies need everyone to do what the company agrees is in line with the company’s values, not what the individual believes to be the right thing to do. But how?

The key, says Chestnut, is for the company to “intentionally determine what their values are and state them.” Then “each and every employee at every level must agree to behave in a manner consistent with those values” even when they differ from those of any individual. This removes ambiguity about what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, and what is forbidden.

 “Intentional Integrity means stating clearly and with specificity: here are our values.” It reduces a company’s risk for “ethical crises” and creates and promotes clear expectations and comfort for all. If there is a conflict between an employee’s philosophy or code of conduct and the company’s, they agree to “abide by every rule in the workplace during their employment.”

Six Critical Steps

Chestnut labels the “overall effort” involved in establishing a culture of integrity as “the Six Cs.”

1. Chief: If the CEO of the company does not completely buy in, live by, and enforce the code of ethics, none of the other five Cs matter. You will not be able to build a “high-integrity culture” without the full support of the Chief. “Hypocrisy and ambiguity are the enemies of integrity.” If employees see the CEO or any executive bend or break the rules, employees “will never take your program seriously.”

2. Customized Code of Ethics: A “specific and published code of ethics” is a critical component to a company culture of high integrity. It will take into account the company’s brand, values, and “practical activities and nuances of the business” as well as integrity violations that are common across every company.

3. Communicating the Code: Chestnut delivers presentations on integrity in person to small groups to every “new employee in offices around the world.” From there, he relies on “senior leaders to communicate and reinforce the code.” Having this information presented by a senior level executive, rather than a junior HR person, for example, drives home the importance of the integrity piece and properly sets the stage for new hires.

4. Clear Reporting System: Violations of the code need to be reported and documented. It should be “easy for employees to report ethical lapses, corruption, and fraud” and they should be able to do so without fear of retaliation. Hearing about these problems internally leads to better outcomes for all involved rather than discovering them through social media or the press.

5. Consequences: All violations of the code of ethics should be subject to consequences for the violating employee. Consequences will naturally vary in degree and severity based on the nature of the violation and the number of times a particular employee has acted against the code.

6. Constant: Chestnut says that the culture of integrity must be designed to “create repetition” in the form of constant reminders and presence. Presentations, posters, videos, and small group discussions are all examples of this repetition that he calls a “constant drumbeat.” The idea is to have employees thinking about the company’s values all the time so that it informs decision making.

Leaders who want to instill integrity into everyday thinking in the workplace will find Intentional Integrity integral in developing and implementing an effective ethics program.


Kristen Cudd

Kristen Cudd is a Contributing Writer at Soundview. She spent seven years in publishing working with business book authors. She loves sharing her viewpoint as a contributing writer for various publications across multiple niches. Her other reviews can be found here.


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