January 30, 2015

What an inspiring story. It sure seems like putting the right thing first pays off:

There are millions of people in America that lack the means to feed their families legally.

That’s the claim made by Dion Drew, who speaks from personal experience rather than statistical authority. Drew grew up in the projects and started selling drugs when he was 15, then bounced in and out of jail for nearly 20 years. Finally, he decided he wanted to do whatever was necessary to stay on the right side of the law. But of course no business owner wanted to hire an ex-convict.

No business except one. For the last 30 years, Greyston Bakery, in Yonkers, N.Y., has made it a policy to hire anyone who comes in the door, without asking questions or even looking at a resume. As a result, Greyston has a staff of former addicts, felons, and immigrants — people normally considered unemployable.

This staff of workers makes food that you’ve probably eaten: They provide all the brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It’s a successful for-profit business, powered by the unemployable.

I asked Greyston CEO Mike Brady how they made this work. First, he straightened out my confusion about Greyston’s open-hire policy: Yes, they will hire anyone who asks for a job, but not necessarily on the spot. If there’s not a position open, Greyston puts applicants on a waiting list. The company has about 100 employees, and it can’t simply hire every jobless person in the world. Also, these are entry-level positions — it wouldn’t make sense to hire a CEO off the street (though that could make an excellent plot for a sitcom).

What makes the open-hire policy revolutionary is that the company does away with interviews and screening.

“Low-wage workers tend to have a fair amount of turnover — if you make investments in a workforce it’s very difficult to judge if they are going to stay,” Brady said. “So companies try to make as low an investment as possible — and that means they are doing very little to break the chain of poverty.”

Greyston takes the opposite approach.

“Rather than spending money on interviews and background checks, we are spending it on training and development,” he said.

New workers go through an intensive training period and a 10-month apprenticeship. People who aren’t pulling their weight get fired. But there are plenty of workers who do just fine, Brady said.

Over the years, Brady has come to suspect that the traditional metrics for determining who will be a good employee are flawed. Someone without an arrest may simply be a person who has never gotten caught.

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