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Why Airbnb CEO Regrets Calling His Company 'Family' During Covid-Era Layoffs

No matter how much you like your colleagues, don’t think of your workplace as a family, Brian Chesky warns now
PUBLISHED JUN 5, 2024
Cover Image Source: Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during the Fortune Global Forum | Getty Images | Photo by Justin Sullivan
Cover Image Source: Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks during the Fortune Global Forum | Getty Images | Photo by Justin Sullivan

Saying “I love you” at the wrong time can have damaging consequences, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky learned after the Covid-era layoffs. While at the time Chesky was lauded for penning a heartfelt letter to over 1,900 employees who were laid off, he says he has pivoted from the feelings he expressed back then. No matter how much you like your colleagues, don’t think of your workplace as a family, Chesky said in Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s “ReThinking” podcast.

 Brian Chesky appears on stage during the 'The Game Plan: Strategies for Entrepreneurs' Airbnb Open | Getty Images | Photo by Kurt Krieger/Corbis
Brian Chesky appears on stage during the 'The Game Plan: Strategies for Entrepreneurs' Airbnb Open | Getty Images | Photo by Kurt Krieger/Corbis

On May 5, 2020, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sent a heartfelt message to employees, which was published on the company’s blog. Apart from outlining the economic state of Airbnb and future plans of the company, Chesky expressed his raw emotions to the 25 percent of Airbnb’s workforce that was being laid off.



“I have a deep feeling of love for all of you,” Chesky wrote in the 3,374-word letter that addressed the employees. “I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you,” Chesky added.

However, now, Chesky says in hindsight, he would’ve never used those words today.

Learning from experience, Chesky told Gant that today, he would never use the words "family" and "love" if he had to redo the letter. He said he would frame his appreciation differently. “I wrote that letter fairly quickly,” said Chesky in the podcast. He added that he “didn’t have a lot of time,” and he wrote what he felt at the time. Chesky added that thinking of your workplace as a family can make it difficult for bosses and employees to do their jobs. “We used to refer to ourselves as a family, and then we did have to fire people, or they’d have to leave the company, and you don’t fire members of your family,” Chesky said.

He explained that the reason he used the word "love" is because that is what he felt at the time. He admitted that he was indeed under some pressure. “I was pretty emotional when I was writing it,” he said. Chesky’s attempt to harness feelings of familial compassion was true to the company’s foundational messaging. However, the layoffs in 2020 challenged that undertaking, and exposed that Airbnb really is a business and not a family.



“How does a company whose mission is centered around belonging have to tell thousands of people they can’t be at the company anymore?” Chesky told Grant.

The CEO had to admit that he wasn’t running a family. “It is true that a company is not a family. In fact, we had to make that pivot,” he explained. More recently, the term "family" being used for companies has come under fire. It has been referred to as a cliché for toxic businesses, according to a Harvard Business Review blog post.

Recently, in a conversation with Stanford University’s “View From The Top,” Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings touched upon the topic. As per Hastings, a company or workplace needs to be treated like a professional sports team and not a family.



“You should organize around this idea that everyone has to fight for their job every year like it is in professional sports,” Hastings said in the interview. He further added that from a leadership point of view, the family approach can be a problem. In case, the leader has to reprimand someone, enforce a rule, or conduct layoffs.

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