How to live your Purpose #6: Use it to Recruit, Review and Reject everybody…even customers.

Douglas John Atkin
Oct 19, 2019 · 7 min read

This is the seventh of a series of articles about ‘Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’ that uses Airbnb as an example. Why am I using Airbnb as an example? Because it’s doing it right, mostly…

These are the other articles in the series:

1. How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one.

2. How to live your Purpose: #1. Purpose must come First.

3. How to live your Purpose: #2. Make ‘Plan-B decisions’.

4. How to live your Purpose: #3. You’re relentlessly focused on the long-term.

5. How to live your Purpose: #4. “Don’t fuck up the Culture”.

6. How to live your Purpose: #5. You need Core Values. They’re the ‘How’ of achieving your ‘Why’.

7. How to live your Purpose: #6. Use your Purpose to Recruit, Review and Reject everybody…even customers.

8. How to live your Purpose: #7. The Purpose must be measured…and given equal status to business metrics.

“What? You’ve got to be joking!”

Aghast. Frustrated. Then resigned. And couple of days later, happily compliant. I’m ashamed to say that this was me when I heard that an urgently needed recruit had been rejected by Airbnb’s Core Values Interviewers to be a full-time employee. She was an outstanding grassroots-organizer that we desperately needed to hire. She was to mobilize and train our Hosts to campaign in a city for a law-change that would recognize the new peer-to-peer economy. But like many other leaders in the company, I had to forego a candidate that had outstanding skills because of their lack of alignment with our Core Values.

1. Use Purpose to Recruit-Review-Reject: your People

The Purpose won’t be delivered if you don’t have people who are driven to deliver it. Equally, your Core Values won’t be lived, and may even fade away, if you don’t select people who inherently share those values. I would have been able to satisfy my urgent business need by hiring this person. But longer term, they would have diluted, or actively eroded, our powerful culture and values that drove us to deliver our Mission.

The recruitment of Purpose and Values-aligned candidates was operationalized relatively early in Airbnb’s history. From the very first hire, the Founders decided to put equal weight on a candidate’s expertise and their values. The moment the Founders realized the company had grown to the point where they could no longer interview every candidate…in 2012, when the HQ population was about 200 people…they initiated a process that’s now implemented daily, all over the world, for every candidate.

How does it work? Each candidate will get six to eight interviews to assess their functional skills…the normal check on whether they’re, say, a great engineer or marketing expert. Naturally, these interviews are conducted by their potential peers. But then they also have to undergo two ‘Core Values Interviews’ with employees who are not in their discipline.

These interviewers’ role is to filter out the candidates whose personal values don’t align with Airbnb’s. As we saw in the previous article, Airbnb’s Core Values are the aggregate of its Founders’ and employees’ shared personal values. So, they probe for evidence in a candidate’s personal and work life that their personal values are shared with Airbnb’s. Each of the Core Values, plus the three ‘Behaviors’, are listed in a form that must be completed by the Core Values Interviewer.

And they have veto power. They may be talking to the best engineer in Silicon Valley, or a proven Partnership builder in Paris. But if the candidate’s personal values are not aligned with Airbnb’s, they will not be hired. The most important part is that every new hire goes through this process — from interns to executives, and even members of the Board of Directors.

Airbnb has grown to over five thousand employees globally. It now has 500 Core Values Interviewers…so 10% of the workforce has been rigorously trained and is called upon to vet candidates. They are also trained to be aware of and eliminate biases. This is far more than a shallow “culture fit” test that many companies conduct. At Airbnb, candidates must demonstrate how their life experience reflects values that are shared with the rest of the employees.

2. Use Purpose to Recruit-Review-Reject: Companies

The Mergers and Acquisitions team has been trained to assess a company’s Purpose, Values and their alignment with Airbnb’s. The executive teams of these companies are given Core Values interviews. Importantly, the acquisitions team also has veto power on the criteria of Purpose and Values. At least one candidate-company for acquisition has been turned down because of their lack of alignment.

3. Use Purpose and Values to Review people once they’re in.

Having a Purpose and Values-gate on recruits is not enough, of course. Once you’ve hired Purpose and Values-aligned people, you must then reward them for not just their impact as an engineer or marketing professional, but how they made that impact. To build high performing teams over the long term, employees need to live the Purpose and Core Values every day. Do they behave, relate, and make decisions with others using the Core Values as a guide? Or, do they violate the Core Values and push their own self-serving agenda? At Airbnb, if they’ve slipped past the Core Values Interviewers, they can still be weeded out via the performance Review system. The ‘How’ is given equal weighting to the ‘What’ of a person’s impact. Like the interview process, there is no tolerance for continued failure to act according to the Core Values. It’s a fire-able offense, no-matter how good their skills are, or how senior they are.

The responsibility to live the Purpose and Values every day falls on everyone, but especially the Founders and leadership. But there’s a risk of “if everyone owns them, then no one does”. Airbnb has a small team, led by my friend Dave O’Neill, dedicated to operationalizing the values into everything everyone does.

4. Use Purpose to Recruit-Review-Reject: your Customers

This ‘Recruit, Review, Reject’ policy has been extended to Airbnb’s customers. Below is the sign-up page for new Hosts and Guests. It reads:

Before you join: Our Mission is to build a trusted community where Anyone can Belong Anywhere. To ensure this, we’re asking you to accept our terms of service and make a commitment to respect everyone on Airbnb.”

The potential customer cannot join the platform unless they accept the ‘Airbnb Community Commitment’:

The Airbnb customer-commitment signup page
The Airbnb customer-commitment signup page

And it’s real. Over a million potential customers have been rejected because they wouldn’t commit to accept everyone, irrespective of their race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age. In addition there’s a team that monitors the platform for abuses, and blacklists those who flout this commitment.

Lost customers, but a saved Purpose. For a platform that depends on the trust of strangers, who is accepted onto it is crucial.

In truth, this filter was implemented later than it should. It was introduced after a crisis when some Guests reported that they had faced prejudice by some Hosts. Joe Gebbia, I and others had talked about a Purpose and Values-led filter for users for years. It was unfortunate that a crisis had to be the catalyst for its implementation.

Now, Airbnb is extremely public about this filter for its users. In response to Trump’s ‘Travel Ban’, Airbnb ran a Superbowl Ad called ‘We Accept’:

And, as this New York Times article describes: “In a memo to employees after the executive order, Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, was more explicit about his opposition. “This is a policy I profoundly disagree with, and it is a direct obstacle to our mission at Airbnb,” Mr. Chesky wrote on Jan. 29. That weekend, the company began to provide free and subsidized temporary housing for people who had been affected by the immigration restrictions.”

This public and uncompromising commitment to Airbnb’s Purpose is controversial amongst some people…Brian has even received death threats. For the rest of us, it’s exactly the right thing to do. Especially when you have a platform that’s dependent on over five million Hosts to deliver the Purpose of ‘Creating a World where Anyone Can Belong Anywhere’.

This obsession with Purpose may seem excessive to some. And, not every company can extend the Recruit-Review-Reject-according-to-Purpose to their customers. But for Airbnb, it’s fundamental. It’s both necessary to create the trust amongst strangers that allows the platform to work. And it’s a critical reason why employees and customers join, stay and are passionate about Airbnb.

A Host at the Airbnb Open in Paris.

Douglas John Atkin

Written by

Airbnb, Purpose, Meetup, Author of The Culting of Brands, The Glue Project, various Ad Agencies in London and NY.

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