After 25 years at Kraft Foods, Rich Jamesley was drawn to Greyston Bakery five years ago by its mission in using business for social good. I caught up with him recently to hear more about the challenges and rewards of working for this people-first organization.
Rich Jamesley is general manager of Greyston Bakery, a world-class commercial operation that produces 8 million pounds of brownies and blondies annually for companies including Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods Market. Founded in 1982, the bakery has pioneered the practice of Open Hiring — extending employment to anyone seeking a job, with no questions asked.
After working with Kraft Foods for over 25 years, Jamesley was drawn to Greyston five years ago by its mission in using business for social good. I caught up with him recently to hear more about the challenges and rewards of working for this people-first organization.
Let’s cut to the chase. What makes Greyston different?
Rich Jamesley: The only difference is that we hire anyone and our employees tend to be people who would not get the same opportunity elsewhere. If you believe in people and their potential, you should be able to take in someone who really wants a job, wants to contribute, and wants to better him or herself.
It goes back to what Bernie Glassman, our founder, believed. He knew that jobs were necessary for people to move forward. How can you become successful without being able to support yourself financially? Greyston Bakery was created to provide jobs to those routinely passed over. And we understand that, because of where they are or where they’re coming from, they may have some other challenges. But, if you provide a path forward and some help in navigating that path; people will succeed, their families will succeed and communities will succeed.
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But, as we say, Open Hiring is an opportunity, not a promise. Greyston is a business and our employees still need to perform. When people first come here, they don’t know what their job will be. They just know that you put your name on a list and you get called when your name comes up. We provide a full-time job and training on day one; but our bakery jobs are not for everyone, because of the physical nature of the work. If we’re not the right fit, it isn’t a failure; the person gains some training and work experience to take somewhere else, and can access our workforce development and job placement services to find something else.
“Greyston is like any other food manufacturer. ... We just have an additional level of care for our people.”
In your experience, is dealing with this workforce any different?
RJ: Many of our bakers do have additional needs — not necessarily at work, but at home. Some come to us from very challenging situations; whether it’s homelessness, poverty or past incarceration. A job is the first step; to do well at work, you also need to be healthy and secure at home. So, we help our people with other issues as needed — like housing, child care, legal services ... even making the transition from unemployment to employment.
Other companies expect that, once you earn the job, you should just perform. At Greyston, we say, ‘You have the job; we’ll help you acclimate yourself to our organization, and also get you what you need to do well.’ Each employee is different; we have people with a variety of backgrounds, needs and talents. Along with our community partners, we offer services to assist those who need a little TLC in navigating their personal challenges. And, once they’ve received that TLC, they’re very productive, loyal workers — because we’ve offered that helping hand, that opportunity to succeed.
How do you balance this more holistic approach to managing employees with running a successful business?
RJ: I would say that it’s mostly a question of allocating time. In my past experience, there was less focus on the needs or concerns of individual workers. Again, you were hired and simply expected to do the job after receiving basic training. If companies spent more time on looking at workers as individuals who may need just a little support to succeed, it would make a big difference for employees and the businesses themselves. I think from that standpoint, the investment is well worth it.
In terms of daily operations, Greyston is like any other food manufacturer. We have to make the product, meet specifications, make customers happy and grow the business. We do all of that here and we do it well. We just have an additional level of care for our people. I don’t want to say that other companies don’t care for their employees; but, in many cases, it’s not the top priority. It's our priority to figure out how to help someone do well from the time they arrive, with no judgment about what they’ve done or where they’ve been before.
I don’t know the backgrounds of probably 95 percent of the people here and I don’t need to. I need my bakers to show up every day and do their jobs. And, if they need assistance in doing that — whether it's connecting them with emergency child care services or better housing — or support with another issue, we’ll do what we can. People do well at work when they do well at home.
What’s your biggest challenge, managing an Open Hiring workforce?
RJ: My challenges don’t have much to do with Open Hiring. As leader of the bakery, my major concern — similar to my peers — is having people coming to work regularly and on time. We need to ensure our bakers know they must be here for their assigned shifts; ensure they do the jobs they’re supposed to do; and insist they are good teammates who understand their success is influenced by those working with them.
What’s the most rewarding thing about working at Greyston?
RJ: Of course, the most obvious reward is seeing people become able to provide for themselves and their families. But there are other things — like seeing someone purchase his or her first car, or open a first bank account.
“Every day, we prove how people can transform their lives just because they were given a chance. And, when our employees see what they can accomplish, they believe in themselves and become hopeful about the future.”
Image courtesy of Greyston Bakery
Speaking to that, Greyston Bakery has been extremely busy during COVID, meeting unprecedented production demands. Do you attribute your employees’ performance to a greater sense of loyalty?
RJ: There’s definitely a strong loyalty to Greyston for the opportunities we provide. Our workers know this is a special place that offers possibility to everyone without judgment, and believes in transformation. Are there better jobs, higher-paying jobs? Yes. But our workers are often shut out of those opportunities while Greyston gives them a foot in the door.
As we worked through COVID, we were faced with a number of major challenges as a food manufacturing business. At first, no one could understand why we were essential workers because we bake brownies — as opposed to providing health care or emergency services. Our bakers were resistant and afraid about coming in, as were many other workers. However, as time went on, they prided themselves on meeting tremendous demand and supporting the business. Greyston has been successful for decades, but our team has really outdone itself during a very challenging time. I cannot tell you how proud I am of everyone here.
“To me, ROI should be based on how many people benefit from your presence.”
What do you want other companies to know about Open Hiring?
RJ: I’ve been around the block, with experience in many places and different work environments; and I believe companies can do more in their local communities. They may host events, sponsor activities, donate money ... but I can’t think of a better way to have real impact than helping people on an individual basis. To me, ROI should be based on how many people benefit from your presence. Yes, make donations, join chambers of commerce, improve the way neighborhoods look, or do other things that are dollar-metric. But recognize that you may have neighbors who don’t have access to something as basic as employment — and offer them jobs.
It may be hard to measure in exact dollars and cents, but anyone who runs a business knows that its success depends on the success of its people and its community. COVID taught us that we’re interconnected — as people go, communities go and business goes. When you invest in your neighbors, there’s no better payoff. You’re helping individuals who aren’t contributing to the community, financial or otherwise. And, what happens if they don’t have access to employment? They may be doing things that we as a society don’t want them to do, but feel like they have no choice. That is a huge payoff.
Open Hiring doesn’t cost businesses anything; in fact, there’s some savings because you’re not spending money trying to screen people out. And, you end up with tremendous employee and community loyalty, which definitely drives business results. Every hire makes a difference, whether it’s a large portion of your workforce, like at Greyston Bakery, or just five or 10 jobs. That’s five or 10 people... five or 10 families.
“Bad employees usually are driven by something in the present, not by something in their past.”
What do you have to say to employers who like the idea of Open Hiring, but are concerned about not doing background checks?
RJ: Well, of course, there are those who have a vested interest in promoting or supporting background checks, but a background check doesn’t tell me what someone is going to do today or tomorrow. It’s easy to say that, ‘In the past, someone did x, y, or z; or was this or that, and you shouldn’t hire them.’ How many of us want to be bound to the past? You have to believe that people can and want to change and adapt; where would we be if we didn’t believe in potential? There are many companies that conduct extensive background checks and still hire bad employees. Have I seen more bad employees at Greyston than what I’ve experienced elsewhere? No. I believe bad employees usually are driven by something in the present, not by something in their past. It's more important to invest in your people to help them do better at work and at home, rather than spending money to find out who was a bad apple at some point before.
Based on your extensive experience, how easy or difficult would it be for manufacturing companies to implement Open Hiring?
RJ: I don’t feel it’s difficult; you just have to be committed to it. You have to determine what positions are right for which individuals; we offer entry-level, living-wage jobs that allow people to progress into other positions after they establish themselves. Open Hiring is a great way to bring in people on the ground floor, teach them basic skills, and encourage them to transition to more responsibility.
From a business leader’s perspective, Open Hiring presents a lot of benefits — but there’s a learning curve. Supervisors must be open to understanding and supporting people on a more human level. Our bakers are more than numbers and timecards. Being a successful Open Hiring employer involves more communication, support, supervision and collaboration — more time — which all businesses should be providing, anyway.
“Experience, good products and a strong balance sheet don’t guarantee success. At the end of the day, you need loyal, hard-working, engaged employees. Open Hiring is an excellent way to build that kind of workforce.”