Earlier this year, home-rental site Airbnb came under heavy scrutiny after black users of the platform took to social media to describe the discrimination they faced. Most noted that after renters saw their photos, which were included in the booking request, they were denied accommodations. The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack popped up on Twitter and went viral. The company needed to do some serious soul-searching.
“Our mission is to allow people to belong anywhere … and that this issue, the issue of racial bias [or] discrimination on the platform, was a big problem and antithetical to our actual mission,” Christopher Lehane, head of global policy and public affairs for Airbnb, told The Root. “We needed to address this, but to be able to address it, we needed to understand it, consult with the experts [and] listen to people who’ve been on the front line for decades to help us … understand what the challenge was and then, from there, what we can do.”
That aha moment led the company to tap powerhouses such as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder, along with Laura W. Murphy—former director of the ACLU Legislative Office, who currently serves as a senior adviser to Airbnb—launched a review into the company's practices with the intention of confronting and dealing with explicit and implicit discrimination and bias.
“What Airbnb made clear from the beginning is that they didn’t want to simply follow the law … but to do that which would exceed what was legally required,” Holder told The Root. “Change comes when you have tough, honest conversations, which I think Airbnb has done; when you have genuine self-reflection, which I think they have engaged in; and when you come up with proposals for bold action.”
Holder, along with civil rights attorney John Relman and Airbnb staffers, spoke with civil rights leaders for input and ideas about policy changes to address the problems and also to position the company to deal with any future grievances.
“The first time I spoke to the executives at Airbnb, there was a palpable demonstration to be willing to have these uncomfortable but absolutely necessary conversations about how these issues arose … and I thought they were interested in solving the problem and not just responding to public criticism,” Holder said.
On Thursday the company is releasing a report detailing its findings and how it plans to remedy the issues that the victims of discrimination have faced. In doing so, Airbnb acknowledges its own lack of workforce diversity, saying that it plans to create a “new comprehensive plan to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.” According to the report, some 9.64 percent of all its U.S.-based employees come from underrepresented communities. The company hopes to increase that number to 11 percent by the end of 2017.
Part of that plan includes implementing the “Diversity Rule,” which mandates that all vacant senior positions at the company include candidates from underrepresented backgrounds before any hiring is permitted to go forward.
The company also plans to increase efforts to recruit from HBCUs and from schools with large Latino and female populations, as well as expand its effort to bring economic opportunities to minority contractors. The report notes that only 1 percent of Airbnb’s total procurement goes to minority-owned businesses, and the company hopes to increase that to 10 percent by 2019.
Looking outside the office, the company hopes to train and encourage more minority-group members to host on Airbnb, citing the economic opportunities that hosting can bring, such as stimulating the economy in those communities.
According to the report, the company also plans to partner with community-based organizations such as the National Urban League to create training for hosts in minority communities. Initial trainings are planned for Springfield, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; Gary, Ind.; and Detroit.
Another change to be instituted, in which Holder has had a heavy hand, is a strengthening of the company’s anti-discrimination policy, requiring both hosts and guests to go above and beyond the applicable federal, state and local laws. Other (extremely broad) policy changes that the company plans to implement immediately include the following:
- establishing a full-time team of engineers, data scientists, researchers and designers whose sole purpose is to root out discrimination and build inclusion on the platform;
- de-emphasizing guest profiles—which can be used to discriminate based on race and/or appearance—and putting more emphasis on other aspects of the person’s profile that could be used;
- launching anti-bias training for all hosts, with the incentive of highlighting hosts who have completed the training;
- making it easier to report allegations of discrimination and get assistance if you feel discriminated against;
- requiring all users to explicitly state that they share in the community commitment, which dictates that they treat everyone—regardless of race, religion, disability, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation—without judgment or bias.
The company acknowledges that it is only scratching the surface, but the move represents Airbnb’s first steps toward fighting discrimination. It is a company that appears committed to change.
“They’re telling the victims of discrimination that they want them back, they don’t sanction discrimination. They know how ugly and divisive it is,” Murphy said. “I hope in general that corporate America pays attention, too. There is a way to engage on these civil rights issues that can yield a process like this one where people feel like they’ve been heard, the company tries to meet them at least halfway, if not more, and that the process of taking on these issues seriously can lead to positive outcomes.”
She continued: “I hope the American people see that in this very hostile and vitriolic environment that we’re in, [in] this nasty political season, that not all of America is going in that direction, that there are actually companies and people who are pushing in the opposite direction toward inclusion, toward respect, toward diversity, and not toward separation and hatred.”
Breanna Edwards is news editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.