To apply to become a baker at Greyston Bakery in New York, you have to put your name down on a piece of paper.
The bakery, which supplies the brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, was founded by a Zen Buddhist and former aeronautical engineer Bernie Glassman in 1982. Since then, it’s been a pioneer of “open hiring”—a recruiting approach which does away with questions about an employee’s prior education, experience, or criminal records. “There’s no interview, no questions asked. We don’t do background checks, drug tests—you show up for your first day of orientation, that is your first day on the job,” says Joseph Kenner, the president and CEO of the Greyston Foundation. The nonprofit runs free workforce development and community wellness initiatives, and also guides prospective employers through what open hiring might look like for their business, including the training and support employers must provide for it to be successful.
The Black Lives matter movement has prompted many companies to consider the ways in which they can create more just workplaces. One element of this is recognizing that a resume is not just a piece of paper and an interview is not just a conversation. Both can be shaped by lifelong privilege, from the circumstances of a person’s upbringing to their access to education and networks. Incorporating an understanding of this into the hiring process—or even more radically, doing away with it entirely—is among the many approaches being proposed to correct imbalances and create actively antiracist organizations.
One of the most high-profile businesses the Greyston Foundation has worked with so far is the Body Shop in the US, which piloted the process at its distribution center in North Carolina towards the end of last year. It was such a success—monthly turnover dropped by 60%—that the company hopes to use the hiring model for entry level customer consultant roles in its retail stores when they reopen.
Open-hiring is “a practice as well as a philosophy,” Kenner says. From a practical standpoint, it’s suited to entry-level positions where skills can be learnt on the job, and employees can prove their suitability for a role in ways they have more control over, such as showing up on time and being willing to learn. From a philosophical standpoint, it’s about looking at employees holistically, and taking into account the ways their circumstances might be impacting their ability to do their job. Greyston Bakery apprentices can join a union, are given benefits, and have access to an “employment pathmaker” who works with them to solve any issues they might be facing, from housing to transportation to childcare.
Kenner has worked in government and corporate settings, too, and is familiar with some of the reasons an organization might balk at hiring someone with no sense of their background. But he believes that in many cases, obstacles to trying out open hiring are surmountable. He talked to Quartz about what adopting the model could mean for companies trying to create more just and equitable workplaces. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you do pitch open hiring to companies?
Depending on the audience my language might change, but I would pitch it as a human capital, talent management strategy that also allows business to be used as a force for good. It’s the belief that we trust the individual who wants to work and is ready to do a good job, and we’ll support them in a way that’s nonjudgmental. As you’re coming in—we don’t judge you. And if things don’t work out and you have to depart voluntarily or involuntarily, because of attendance or whatever issue, we’re not going to judge either. The philosophy is that everybody has something to offer to an organization. And if you are willing to join an organization and to do a good job, there’ll be support for you.
It sounds like this goes beyond an employee-employer relationship revolving around a paycheck, and speaks to the growing conscious capitalism movement, which sees companies as having a greater social responsibility.
It’s actually just good business. It’s about paying attention to the bottom line, but also to all the other ingredients that go into making a company and economies successful—taking care of your employees and taking care of those who support your business. If you meet all of those needs, you will be successful.
We’re also addressing issues within the community itself. People that were traditionally excluded from employment, they now have this opportunity or access to a job. [Applicants] may not get the call for six months. It all depends on production and just how fast we go through the list. But the idea is, there is that hope. That one day I will get the call, I will get a job if I simply put my name on a list. That is a game-changer for a lot of folks, and that is a paradigm shift from a business operational standpoint in terms of human capital.
What do you look for in a prospective employee if you’re not evaluating someone on their workplace experience, skills, background, education?
That’s a question a company needs to ask themselves, and that’s part of the mind shift. What do you really need? What [the bakery] really needs is someone to show up on time, take instruction, learn a new task, and be willing to do a good job and meet production goals. Is that different from any other job, when you think about? At the end of the day, it’s just really: What do you need as an organization?
It sounds like the evaluation of someone’s success happens from the minute they walk in the door, as they’re doing the job, and learning. How do you manage the training to make sure you’re helping them to succeed?
The first thing is the decision to work. That’s half the battle right there, putting their name on the list, showing up for orientation and then going through the six to nine months apprenticeship. [We state] that we’re here to support them and let them know if there are needs that they have, whether it is language or, “I’m going to be kicked out of my house in the next month because we’re having issues making rent.” We’ll make connections through our employment pathmaker to help you along the way to get connected to social service and other agencies within this community that can support them. It’s really letting them know the resources that are available to them.
Companies have now realized that [they have to ask]: How do I look at my human capital from a holistic standpoint? What kind of mental health services do we provide to our folks? What kind of training do we provide to our folks? How do I know if my organization is safe? And how can I think about hiring differently? These things are all coming to the surface now. They’ve been there for decades, but some of these [Black Lives Matter protests] have kind of ripped the Band-Aid and exposed that wound. That’s what companies are thinking through now, because consumers are asking for it, not just employees.
What do you see as the biggest reason that companies say that they can’t do open hiring, and how do you respond to that?
I think a lot of it is developing the ability to understand the risk and how that risk can be effectively addressed. And the risk could be, “Oh my God. This is another program. How expensive is this thing going to be for me?” First of all, it’s not a program. It’s a business model. And it’s really a reallocation of cost that you’re already spending in terms of interviews, the background checks, that we know aren’t always 100% effective either. Instead of investing in keeping people out, let’s invest in keeping people in—invest in training, wraparound services. You really have to ask the question: What do I really need from an employee? Do I really need to interview? Does it matter? If a person is showing up knowing that this job does X, I need you to work, however many days a week for however many hours. Can you do it? At the end of the day if that’s all you need, there’s your open hiring model there.
We’re not saying, change your whole department and make it open hiring. That may not be the culture of your organization. Make one job open hiring. Get your feet wet that way. Whether it’s a janitor or a landscaper, whatever that entry level position is [where] you just need somebody who’s ready to take the job and you can train them. Let that be your open hiring job. And see how it works out for you. It really depends on the culture of the organization, how your organization is structured, what kind of services you provide. That I think is the other challenge.
If you’re worried about hiring a sex offender or a murderer, you know what? Focus on single mothers. Focus on kids aging out of foster homes. Think through how you want it. Companies have to be intentional about this. You just can’t just say it because it sounds good. You really have to be invested in the population that you can be taking in. Ours is open door. We don’t target reentry. We don’t target homeless. We don’t target drug recovery folks. I just need you to come to work. We’ve been doing that for 38 years, and we’ve had no unique issues other than what any other manufacturer would go through. Showing up on time, adhering to good manufacturing practices. We fire people, too. Just because we doing open hiring doesn’t mean we don’t hold folks accountable.
To what extent do you see open hiring having the kind of bigger, systemic impact that that’s being called for by the antiracist movement at this moment?
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s are the poster children for activism and [recently] I asked them, “Do you see systemic change happening? Is this a watershed moment for us? And [they] threw it back. And I would throw it back at you as well. [They] said, this is a watershed moment if we make it one. And that was very profound. I see the statements from corporations. I see the black squares on social media. People are down with the cause and they’re aligning, [saying], “We see you, we hear you.” That’s all great, and I applaud all of that. That’s phase one.
Phase two is: “What are we going to do now? What’s the problem you want to solve?” And [phase] three is: “How are you going to measure that?” How do I know that you’ve actually addressed this?
My challenge to business leaders is: talk to us, first of all. We have a solution for you called open hiring. But this can’t be a marketing moment where we’re Black- and brown-washing our companies. This has got to be an intentional, aspirational goal to fundamentally change how we provide access and opportunity to employment, to a thriving future [and] true economic development for our communities, particularly in our urban areas. That requires thought, that requires a strategy.