To fight discrimination on Airbnb, its execs look inward and out

The home-rental platform has announced changes to both service and hiring processes in an effort to discourage discrimination.

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
Airbnb co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky makes an announcement, April 19, 2016, in San Francisco. On Thursday, Airbnb announced a series of platform changes designed to prevent racial discrimination on the house rental site.

Can policy changes solve Airbnb’s racism problem?

On Thursday, Airbnb announced a series of platform changes designed to prevent racial discrimination on the home-rental site. Scores of nonwhite Airbnb users have taken to social media in recent months, describing how they were denied accommodations that were later given to white guests.

Executives hope the new measures, which include downplayed user photos and new terms of use, will discourage discrimination on the site. But Airbnb is also looking inward, at its own hiring practices, to fight racial bias.

The main advantage of the so-called “sharing economy” is also its greatest weakness: on platforms like Airbnb and Uber, users are both merchant and customer. These communities operate within legal gray areas and are mostly self-policing. So when a white renter (or driver) decides to refuse their services to a nonwhite patron, there are few measures in place to prevent it.

The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, with which black users reported experiencing discrimination on the renting platform, began trending on Twitter earlier this year. New startups, such as Innclusive and Noirebnb, emerged with promises of a more inclusive experience. In July, founder and chief executive Brian Chesky said that racial discrimination was Airbnb’s chief challenge.

"Bias and discrimination have no place on Airbnb, and we have zero tolerance for them," Mr. Chesky wrote in an email to users. "Unfortunately, we have been slow to address these problems, and for this I am sorry."

Soon, user photos will be displayed less prominently – but not removed – from Airbnb’s reservation request system, according to a report by senior adviser Laura Murphy. And if a host informs a potential guest that their home is unavailable, the host will be prevented from accepting other customers’ reservations during that time.

The company will also require users to sign a non-discrimination agreement, implement a 24/7 customer support team, and expand their instant booking program, which allows guests to make reservations without prior host approval.

But some discrimination begins internally. Since its founding, Airbnb has lacked diversity in upper management. In an interview with Forbes, Chesky admitted that the “three white guys” who founded Airbnb never considered how their corporate culture might encourage racial bias.

On Thursday, the company introduced new internal rules designed to increase employee diversity. Airbnb now mandates that all senior-level hiring pools must contain women and nonwhite candidates. Additionally, it assembled a 12-person research team of engineers and data experts that will focus exclusively on removing bias within the platform.

"We call it 'diversity' now, but a generation ago we used to call it 'integration,' " former Attorney General Eric Holder told Forbes. "There are all kinds of positives that flow from that integration/diversity. The institutions become stronger."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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