COVID-19 put the plight of workers in the spotlight: Many of those deemed essential to keep key services going also are among the lowest paid and lack benefits such as health insurance, sick leave, or retirement funds. In addition, the rapid and record job loss due to COVID-19 is likely to have long-term repercussions for individual workers and the economy as a whole, raising questions about the long-term viability of the current shareholder-focused system.
As more businesses realize the benefits of a work culture where employees feel valued and connected, more employees are looking to align their work with their values. By providing a living wage and benefits that help workers maintain their well-being and support their families, businesses can see greater worker connections and productivity. At worker-owned companies or cooperatives, employees stand to gain even more when the business succeeds, as they get a say in business decisions and a share of the profits when things are going well.
These worker-friendly practices are finding favor with innovative leaders such as PayPal CEO Dan Schulman. After an employee survey revealed that 60% of workers at call centers or in hourly roles were struggling to pay their bills, Schulman introduced changes that affect a third of PayPal’s 21,000 employees: higher wages that reflect regional cost of living, lower health insurance costs, stock grants, and a new financial education initiative. “If you don’t act on values, what you stand for, then you don’t really stand for anything,” Schulman said in a Fast Company article about his inclusive management style.
An employee-centric culture also is common among businesses in the Certified B Corporation community that include employees as a primary stakeholder in company decisions. As part of my research on creating a more sustainable capitalism, I recently spoke with leaders at two B Corps known for their innovative policies toward workers.
At Boloco, a Boston-based restaurant company that serves Modern Mexican-inspired burritos, bowls, salads, and more, co-founder John Pepper leads the B Corp in its mission to “positively impact the lives and futures” of workers through on-site classes and other skill-development programming. Similarly, B Corp Greyston Bakery, led by President and CEO Joe Kenner, is known for its Open Hiring program that provides job opportunities and training for people who typically face barriers to employment. This program now can be replicated through the recently established Open Hiring Foundation.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for both businesses, Pepper and Kenner say they are leaning into the stakeholder-driven B Corp model to guide their decisions and practices to best benefit workers, community, and environment while also maintaining a healthy bottom line.
Changing Lives Through Language
Boloco, a Boston company serving burritos and bowls, was started in 1997 by Pepper, Gregg Harris, and Adam Liebman with the
goal of improving on the traditional Mexican burrito. Since then Boloco has grown to eight restaurants and 120 team members and in 2016 became a B Corp. Pepper was the CEO of Boloco for 17 years until he resigned from this position in 2013. Two years later, he repurchased the company to get it back on track.
“I’m really focusing on how to use something as simple as a burrito to change the lives of people who work in fast food instead of using the people to make me and a few others a bunch of money,” he says. “We’re just always trying to help people learn skills that may support Boloco but also can transfer outside of the job. A lot of our team members are immigrants. The main way for them to earn more money or to return to their former vocation prior to moving to the US is to learn English. Our goal is to ensure we provide them with skills training that helps them get better jobs within or outside of Boloco.”
That led to a 10-year partnership with Jewish Vocational Services, a workforce development agency that provided on-site English classes for Boloco workers — who were paid for their time in classes — until COVID-19 brought classes to a recent halt. Boloco also was working with JVS to help every employee create a resume that would help them find new opportunities in the future.
“The very first step in helping people moving forward is, ‘Can you articulate your strengths? Can you advocate for yourself in an interview or on paper?’” Pepper says. “That was one training piece that we were working on that was totally different than in the past. We wanted to help people be prepared to get better jobs. Today, more than ever, that’s important.”
The B Corp stakeholder focus — on workers, community, environment, and customers as well as the bottom line — has served as a stabilizing force amid restaurant closures, staffing cuts, and other operational changes due to COVID-19, Pepper says.
“The harder we’re getting hit, the harder we’re leaning into those values,” he says. “We always talk about kind people and good-hearted people, and to care about those around them first. We’re unsure how or even if we will survive this pandemic as Boston has been particularly hard hit, but if we don’t we will have stood our ground on principles right to the last day.”
Finding Opportunity and Accountability
Providing a workplace that creates new opportunities for employees also is part of the mission at Greyston Bakery, which for 38 years has followed an Open Hiring model: no resumes, background checks, or interviews.
As Kenner says, Greyston founder Bernie Glassman wanted to find ways to integrate people whom society had left behind by providing employment and job skills. At the bakery — where workers create the brownies and blondies for Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods Market, and other retail outlets — employees gain professional experience as well as a way to support themselves and their families.
“The genesis was Bernie’s belief that we lose as a society when folks are not realizing their full potential,” Kenner says. “Open Hiring isn’t charity; it’s a talent management strategy. It’s not a promise; this is an opportunity. We offer jobs to people no questions asked but, at the end of the day, we still need to run a business that needs to make a profit, that needs to supply a product for Ben & Jerry’s. There’s accountability there.”
Some business leaders are dubious when they first learn about Open Hiring, and Kenner acknowledges that it is a “radically different” model. “But you also have to take a step back and ask, ‘Why do we have certain policies in place? Why do we interview for something that I’m going to train you for, anyway?’ We put up these barriers, and we keep them there over time. The one thing we say to any business, but the Business Roundtable in particular, is that you control the one lever that can change somebody’s life, and that’s employment.”
With about 100 bakery employees, including 70 or from Open Hiring, Greyston operates differently with an eye on employees’ long-term success. “We believe we want to invest in bringing you in and keeping you here,” Kenner says. “It comes down to a holistic approach of taking care of your employees.”
Safety and Support Amid COVID-19
COVID-19 brought changes to the bakery, where on-site workers were among those deemed essential — and are 95% People of Color and 30% women. The Yonkers-based bakery’s ZIP code has been the epicenter of the coronavirus in Westchester County, among the hardest-hit regions in New York with nearly 1,500 deaths since March.
“There was no playbook for, ‘How do you even manage a pandemic?’ So it was really about how to keep ourselves safe,” Kenner says. “The bakery never shut down. But we changed by really leaning into our DNA and considering, ‘How do we now support our employees through this new environment? How do we make sure that they’re safe in this new environment?’”
At the bakery, that meant the addition of hand sanitizer dispensers, as well as masks, gloves, and other PPE for employees as well as physical distancing markers and guidelines. Some bakery employees had to quarantine, but Kenner says the company is grateful that none of its workers suffered more serious health consequences.
“How we interacted as an organization, as an executive team was the biggest change for us,” he says. “Again, it was leaning into something that I think is just part of our DNA, and that’s asking, ‘How do we take care of our employees?’ We are, first and foremost, about people.”
It’s also part of the B Corp’s mission to create a better future for individuals and communities, a movement that Kenner says has gained urgency amid recent crises.
“If you look at some of the issues surrounding both the pandemic and George Floyd, what are we talking about? It’s opportunity; it’s access,” he says “You’re talking about poverty; you’re talking about discrimination — that’s what we’ve been doing for 38 years, addressing those issues. We’ve been bringing folks into the mainstream for decades by investing in their potential, with no judgment.”