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As the poster-child for short term rentals, Airbnb is no stranger to controversy. In the past few weeks, however, the news surrounding Airbnb has revolved around another hot-button issue – racial discrimination; and it’s not the first time the company has come face-to-face with the challenge.
During the fall of 2015, Airbnb’s company diversity report revealed its U.S. workforce was comprised of predominantly white and Asian employees (~ 85 percent), whereas Hispanic and black employees accounted for only about 10 percent; 7.1 percent are Hispanic and only 3 percent are black. About a year and a half prior, a Harvard Business School study reported that black hosts charge 12 percent less than nonblack hosts, and another Harvard paper, published in Jan 2016, revealed that guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names – which brings us to the current situation.
Gregory Selden, 25, sued Airbnb in Washington D.C. this past week over racial discrimination accusations. After having a reservation request rejected due to unavailable dates, Selden stumbled upon the same listing advertising the same dates as available. Using an alias profile with a white name and profile picture, the host approved Selden for the same reservation request that his original inquiry was denied. Selden’s story and others similar soon brought the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack on Twitter to trending status.
As a company that seeks to foster human connection, Airbnb has taken steps to remedy the problems that spurred these accusations. In response to the inequality of internal diversity reports, in March 2016, Airbnb hired David King, the company’s first Director of Diversity to make “the company and the community of travelers that it supports more diverse,” states the New York Times. And last week via Medium, the company announced the proceeds from their annual OpenAir tech conference will be donated to CODE2040, a non-profit that “creates access, awareness, and opportunity for top Black and Latino/a engineering talent.”
The current accusations, however, are a much larger challenge to fix when compared to encouraging diversity within the internal company. How does Airbnb fix an age-old problem that’s manifesting outside of their own four walls? In a statement released on May 11th, David King closes the company’s proclamation of intolerance for such behavior saying, “We will continue to work as hard as we can to break down barriers and bring people together.”
While the company works to develop and implement strategies for equality on the platform, King’s statement suggests hosts utilize the Airbnb Instant Book feature. When applying the tool, hosts are prompted to set requirements based on their preferences – for example – accepting guests who only have positive reviews from other hosts. Instant Book doesn’t require a host to manually accept or reject a reservation request and thereby eliminates any opportunity for intentional or unconscious biases.
In addition to Instant Book, employing a property manager also helps safeguard against discrimination. At Pillow, for example, our booking team requires guests to have a Verified ID – proof of a government issued ID, a profile photo, and a confirmed phone number and email address. Cross-references with online profiles, like Facebook and LinkedIn, are also an option. At Pillow, vetting a guest is about protecting your home and isn’t based on discriminating factors like race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Selden’s situation also shed’s light on another intriguing challenge. The host who rejected Selden because of his race accepted the reservation request from a phony profile. Foreshadowed by Airbnb’s recent interest in blockchain technology, trust within the Airbnb community is going to be a topic we’ll hear a lot more about. These added measures will help protect against phony profiles, like those used by Selden, to ensure a guest is, in fact, the living breathing version of their profile. For now, short term rental hosts should be more concerned about the legitimacy of the person behind a profile rather than the color of their skin.
It’s sad that Airbnb is taking the heat for such a deep-rooted problem but, as a company that fundamentally believes in the deeper connections of people around the world, Airbnb is primed to take this challenge and turn it into an example to set standards by.
By Michelle Giuliano
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