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News » Airbnb CEO regrets calling company ‘family’ during pandemic layoffs

Airbnb CEO regrets calling company ‘family’ during pandemic layoffs

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Photo from Airbnb.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES — In a candid admission, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky shared the mistake he made during pandemic-era layoffs, referring to the company as a “family.”

Chesky, who appeared on Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s “ReThinking” podcast, now advises against viewing workplaces through a familial lens.

The pitfalls of the ‘workplace family’ mindset

At the height of Covid-19 in 2020, Chesky penned an emotional note to employees announcing layoffs. 

“I have a deep feeling of love for all of you,” he wrote, tapping into the popular pre-pandemic notion of workplaces as surrogate families. 

However, Chesky now acknowledges the flaws in that approach. “I wrote that letter fairly quickly… that’s what I felt, and I was pretty emotional when I was writing it. And it is true that a company’s not a family. In fact, we had to make that pivot.”

Rethinking employee-employer dynamics

Chesky realized the “family” concept clashed with the reality of having to let people go.

“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 yeah, you don’t fire members of your family,” he explained.

“One CEO told me, “At some point in your life, you’re gonna have to do a layoff every CEO does. And if you do, you have to move quickly and you have to cut deep enough and cut once,”” Chesky added.

The professional sports team analogy

Chesky agrees with the stance of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who likens workplaces to professional sports teams.

“You should organize around this idea that everyone has to fight for their job every year, like it is in professional sports,” Hastings advised on “View From The Top” interview by the Stanford University.

“If you’re going to win, it’s because you’ve assembled the most amazing group that have ever been together.”

Maintaining boundaries in the workplace

From a leadership perspective, the “family” notion creates challenges when enforcing rules or conducting layoffs. As leadership coach Joshua Luna noted in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, using familial terms enables managers to take advantage of employees’ emotional ties, regularly asking them to go above and beyond their roles.

A healthier approach, according to Luna, “respects the transactional nature of this relationship.” The professional team mentality fosters a sense of belonging while keeping the focus on performance and productivity.

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