By Mai P. Tran
For Gary W., coming home after ten years in prison wasn’t easy. Just days after his release, his wife died of cancer, and Gary then spent the next six months unsuccessfully searching for a job. For him, as for many others with a criminal record, the stigma attached to his past made securing employment almost impossible.
But Gary’s situation changed when Greyston Bakery called to offer him a position. “I had fears of failing and not finding a job,” he said, “but this was a golden opportunity.”
Located in Yonkers, north of New York City, Greyston is best known for baking brownies for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Whole Foods Market. What most people don’t know about the company, though, is its social responsibility–focused mission: hiring hard-to-employ individuals, including people with criminal records and addiction and substance-use issues, and the homeless.
In its hiring process, Greyston doesn’t ask applicants background questions, including questions about criminal records. People interested in working at the bakery fill out an application, and are placed on a wait list until entry-level positions become available. Aspiring bakers then begin with Greyston’s paid apprenticeship program, a 10-month intensive training during which employees learn the skills needed for working in the bakery, including baking and packing brownies. When apprentices complete the program, they’re hired as full-time employees. Last year, 12 people graduated to permanent employment.
“We want to create a no-judgment environment, so we don’t inquire about background and criminal histories,” said Mike Brady, Greyston’s CEO. Open hiring has been the company’s policy since it started in 1982, when the founder, Roshi Bernie Glassman, recognized that stable employment could help people, including the formerly incarcerated and their families, escape the cycle of poverty.
Building on Glassman’s philosophy, in 2012 Greyston Bakery registered as a Benefit Corporation (B Corp), becoming the first business in New York State to attain this legal status. B Corps are required to structure their business practices not only to generate profit but to create real public benefit, and Greyston is doing just that: the bakery’s latest B Corp report notes that of its 130 employees, 49 were previously incarcerated.
According to Brady, hiring people with criminal records doesn’t just provide a public benefit, though. It’s a business benefit, too—a sustainable practice that encourages longer-term employment. Greyston has little staff turnover, he said, because employees “appreciate their jobs and hold onto them.” Jennifer Solomon, Greyston’s CFO, offered this advice to other employers: “Don’t be afraid to hire [people with criminal records]. Don’t be afraid of not getting high-quality, dedicated workers. In so many ways these people appreciate the opportunity, and it’s very inspiring.”
Brady also addressed concerns of workplace violence, which can sometimes make businesses hesitant to hire people with criminal records: “That fear of workplace violence is unfounded, from my experience,” he said.
2014 TED Talk featuring Mike Brady and Dion D..
While holding all its employees to a high standard, Greyston also works to accommodate their individual needs. While the company never asks about criminal backgrounds, sometimes the information arises naturally, when an employee has a mandatory court date, for example, or needs to check in with a probation officer. In such cases, the bakery does its best to shift schedules to accommodate legal obligations.
For Gary W., who is still on parole, this flexibility means he doesn’t have to miss work to fulfill his community supervision requirements. “My parole officer is excited that I work here, and gives me a lot of support,” he said.
Greyston also offers competitive wages and benefits for its employees: apprentices start at minimum wage, but upon graduation employees become eligible for periodic wage increases and bonuses based on performance, as well as health, dental, and life insurance benefits. There are also opportunities for career growth. Dion D., who started working at Greyston in February 2009 after being incarcerated for four years, has been promoted three times and is now in a management position, training and supervising bakers.
For Dion D. and Gary W. and many others at Greyston, baking brownies is more than a job. “This is my home,” said Dion D. “The best part of working here is seeing people who went through the same struggles I did, to see them do well is inspiring.”
For Gary W., Greyston was a chance to earn an honest living and live a crime-free life. “I was afraid of having to resort back to what I was doing before,” he said. “I now have a sense of pride and feel good about coming to work. This is what is I should have done many years ago.”