Airbnb recently made headlines by banning the parents of political pundit Lauren Southern. Though the company ultimately deemed it a “mistake,” the incident has many wondering how such a blunder could happen. How could a public figure’s family members be tracked down and a specific email be sent to them… all by mistake?
Airbnb has since reversed its decision, but its policies that initially allowed for the prohibition reveal a deeper issue, one that too many companies suffer from today. In its initial email to Southern’s parents, Airbnb states, “For the safety of our community, we may remove accounts that are closely associated with people who aren’t allowed to use Airbnb.” But how far does this stretch? What reasoning may be provided?
This policy is an example of how vague wording can be dangerous, allowing for wide interpretations that can result in the violation of the God-given freedoms of speech and religion. These policies can be used to punish people simply for their beliefs, and as Southern’s parents found out firsthand, they can also be wielded against relatives and other associates.
These policies were among the reasons why Airbnb scored just 5 percent overall on the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index—the second-lowest score among 50 tech, web, and financial services corporations scored on the report.
In addition to the vague policies that allow for viewpoint discrimination, Airbnb’s low score can primarily be attributed to divisive workplace teachings, undermining free speech through political spending, and threatening to exclude faith-based non-profits from charitable contributions due to their religious status.
Airbnb also declined to respond to shareholder questions via the survey portion of the 2022 Business Index. That lack of transparency should concern every Airbnb customer, employee, and shareholder.
This article will discuss further how these factors—as well as others—contributed to Airbnb’s score.
Airbnb completely failed the Market section of the Business Index—one of just three companies that did not earn a single percentage point. The primary concern was the lack of clarity in Airbnb’s discrimination policies: what (and whom) did they cover? What (and whom) do they prohibit? Do those policies apply equally? Could they be used to impose restrictions on someone for their opinions or beliefs?
What Airbnb has publicly available did little to answer those questions. For example, its “Nondiscrimination Policy” states that “Bias, prejudice, racism, and hatred have no place on our platform or in our community,” yet fails to provide any meaningful definitions for these terms. What may fall under these conditions? It is difficult to tell, and this lack of clarity is exactly what allowed for Southern’s parents to be banned. Even taking Airbnb’s explanation that its action was an innocent mistake at face value underscores the danger in such broad terms as “bias, prejudice, racism, and hatred.”
[Read more about the risk of unclear or imprecise terms in product or service policies]
Despite the overall vagueness of Airbnb’s user guidelines, one thing was made clear: religious organizations are not allowed to use Airbnb to host an event for religious purposes. Religious organizations including churches can host an event, but it must be for “non-sectarian” activities that “are open to all faiths.” This rule is a clear viewpoint-based restriction on speech.
Airbnb could correct this by adopting a Service Anti-Viewpoint Discrimination Policy that clarifies its stance on viewpoint diversity.
[Read more about what Viewpoint Diversity looks like in business]
Airbnb scored better in the Workplace section, but not by much, at just 5 percent. The company’s bright spot on the section was because its equal employment opportunity policy includes religion as a protected category. However, the company’s low score highlights numerous factors that hold its workplace back from truly respecting the freedom of its employees.
Specifically, Airbnb has materials that advocate for divisive concepts in the workplace. Their Activism & Allyship Guide relies on an “oppressor vs. oppressed” framework, which a plurality of U.S. employees surveyed in an Ipsos poll commissioned by Alliance Defending Freedom found divisive rather than unifying.
It explains further:
“Social privilege is a special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others. Groups can be advantaged based on social class, age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion.”
As we’ve written previously, these concepts, regardless of intentions, result in unnecessary divisions in the workplace and create an environment of distrust. Instead, Airbnb should seek to elevate everyone through emphasizing the equal dignity of all people, and can do so with training programs such as BrighterSideHR and Real Unity Training Solutions.
In addition to the divisive workplace content, there were numerous important factors that could not be found in publicly accessible material. There were no available policies that provided a minimum degree of respect for viewpoint diversity, nor any references to faith-based employee resource groups. Because these could not be found in publicly available material, and because Airbnb did not respond to the survey portion of the Business Index, there were many questions left unanswered regarding Airbnb’s respect for religious freedoms in the workplace.
Airbnb scored 13 percent in the Public Square section of the Business Index, by far their best category but still well below the section average of 21 percent among all companies evaluated.
Airbnb is a mixed bag when it comes to financial support for members of Congress. Over 30 percent of its contributions went to members of Congress with positive legislative records on free speech and religious liberty, while over half went to those with negative legislative records on guarding these fundamental freedoms.
Airbnb has also supported the Equality Act, a piece of federal legislation that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes to nondiscrimination laws. Despite its promises, the Equality Act would increase discrimination against many people. It would coerce uniformity of thought and action relating to beliefs about marriage, sex, and what it means to be male and female. It would also harm female athletes, forcing them to compete against men in athletic events and to share private spaces with men. In addition, it would harm religious freedom by forcing people who willingly serve everyone to promote messages and celebrate events that conflict with their beliefs.
[Read more about how the Equality Act would harm religious liberties]
Airbnb’s low public square score was also due to its exclusion of charities due to religious reasons. As was mentioned in the market section, religious organizations cannot host an event for religious purposes. These same policies threaten to exclude faith-based non-profits from charitable contributions or non-profit pricing, due to their religious status or their advocacy for religious-based perspectives. These dangerous policies require religious organizations to leave their beliefs at the door to be eligible for basic non-profit advantages.
As society continues to divide, companies like Airbnb should step in and support freedom of speech and religious liberties, which are essential to the success and wellbeing of its customers, employees, and stakeholders. The divisive concepts permeating Airbnb’s workplace and its support of harmful political activity only deepens the divisions that needlessly pit Americans against each other.
Airbnb would do well to clarify its user policies to avoid repeating the error it made with Lauren Southern’s parents. Our model policies can provide an excellent starting point to help make sure Airbnb respects its users, employees, shareholders, and fellow citizens who hold a diverse set of views on a wide range of hot-button issues.
Finally, Airbnb would also do well to have more transparency regarding their stance on free speech. The company’s publicly available material included very few references to protecting diverse points of view, and its recent actions raise real concerns about its commitment to treating everyone equally regardless of politics and religion. Airbnb should further embrace transparency on key issues by participating in the survey portion of the 2023 Business Index.