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Employing Society's Outcasts

April 1, 1996
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
If you've ever encountered a homeless person who has asked you for money, food or work, you probably had some strong feelings about him or her. Whether you felt guilt, compassion, fear, repulsion or denial—or one of many other feelings that such people usually elicit—it's difficult not to feel something when you meet someone who's disadvantaged.

The problem is, most people—even employers—don't know what to do in this kind of situation. You know, for instance, that giving a homeless person a dollar potentially will help that person get something to eat, but it won't solve that person's perpetual problem—the lack of self-sufficiency. These individuals need long-term solutions. And handouts aren't likely to get them there.

The truth is, many people who are in this situation, or other states of neediness, desperately desire one thing: a chance to prove themselves. In the business world, some companies are giving life-building chances to people who need a little extra support to enhance their professional and personal lives. Three companies in particular—Coors, The DELSTAR Group and Mini Maid—have made corporate commitments to giving people second chances. And their motivation to employ the economically disadvantaged, the homeless, the educationally deficient, the welfare-dependent or other disadvantaged individuals, while socially responsible, is based as much on business need as the desire to be do-gooders. Read why these companies are employing individuals whom much of society has deemed "unemployable"—and why it's making such good business sense to do so.

How do companies identify disadvantaged employees to hire?
Coors Brewing Company, part of Adolph Coors Company—a beverage producer based in Golden, Colorado—has given a variety of disadvantaged individuals a chance to work through The Golden Door Employment Opportunity Training Program that it has operated since 1968.

Over the past 28 years, Coors estimates it has employed 125 to 150 individuals who have come from varying backgrounds usually considered less than ideal, such as people without high school degrees, people who are of low socioeconomic status and even individuals who have been incarcerated. Coors identifies potential hires for this program through local public agencies and nonprofit groups around the Golden and Denver areas, and through parole officers who are familiar with the program. Some individuals who apply for jobs through Coors' regular hiring process are referred to the Golden Door program if they have incomes below the poverty level or meet some of the program's other criteria, such as having been convicted of a felony or having less than a high school diploma. Other individuals are identified simply through word-of-mouth channels in the community.

Another employer that makes a point to identify and hire disadvantaged individuals in the communities in which it operates is The DELSTAR Group. This Phoenix-based company operates 16 specialty retail stores in airports and resorts in California and Arizona. Although DELSTAR stores aren't obligated to employ disadvantaged people, the firm's CEO and founder, Pam Del Duca, committed to doing so when she first formed the company 24 years ago. Some of her first stores were located in airports.

Being a woman, Del Duca was qualified as a minority to open businesses on federal property—which is what airports are built on. To operate a business on federal property, it must be a disadvantaged enterprise, which means at least 10% of its ownership must be in a minority class. Del Duca's guiding vision has catapulted the business into partnerships with community-based organizations to identify other minority and disadvantaged people to work in the stores. These organizations are the Phoenix Urban League, Chicanos Por La Causa and the Phoenix Indian Center. All of them funnel candidates to DELSTAR locations for possible recruitment and hire.

"What we do is try to go through those agencies to get applicants," says Debbie Moore, training manager for DELSTAR, which currently employs 130 people. "Some of these people have never worked a day in their lives, let alone worked in retail," says Moore. "We have chosen to [work with these people] as part of our company philosophy."

DELSTAR also locates workers through other sources such as homeless shelters, an internal employee referral program, nearby schools and ads placed in local papers. In addition, this past year DELSTAR identified economically disadvantaged workers through the state of Arizona's Business Incentive Program, a program that assists people in getting off the welfare system. "We don't look only at people who have a retail background," explains Moore. "We look for people who have the drive to work hard, have the personality to be assertive and who want to come in here and have fun with their jobs."

Another organization, Mini Maid Services Company Inc., based in Marietta, Georgia, adopted a similar philosophy when President and CEO Leone Ackerly founded the firm in 1973. The company, which was the first U.S. residential home-cleaning services organization, now has 85 franchises in 27 states, and Ackerly still oversees the organization and its franchise operations. "We hire anybody who's willing to work and is honest," says Ackerly. He continues: "I'd say 87% of the people we hire are unskilled, uneducated or people whom I call 'abused from the womb.' It's very sad, but yet, at the same time, when you take these individuals and begin to work with them in leadership, integrity and appearance skills, slowly but surely it brings them up to a high level of self-esteem."

Ackerly's motivational and management techniques have helped many unskilled workers escape the traps of abuse and welfare. "What happens when [people] are trained in things like taking responsibility, having a positive attitude and having a set of rules to live by, is it changes the whole nasty cycle [of abuse or welfare]," says Ackerly. "What [these people] do then is apply these same tactics and standards to their family lives." For example, Terri, a young woman who only had a fourth-grade education and came from a family who abused her, became one of the first Mini Maids. Terri learned the skills necessary to become a successful team member and later, she became a team leader. "From the day I was born, my life was always topsy- turvy—always a mess," she says. "But once I got in with Mini Maid, I was taking charge of my life for the first time. I started to feel some self-esteem and pride." She stayed with the firm 19 years.

Ackerly says it takes careful training and personal attention to nurture these individuals who have had difficult lives but who also have the spark of motivation to make more of themselves. They need jobs, but wages alone won't motivate them. Mini Maid always has paid entry-level workers above minimum wage to start. In North Cobb County, Georgia, for example, franchise managers pay workers at least $6 an hour. Workers also get weekly bonuses for showing up to work on time and in uniform. They also have every opportunity to advance (the firm always promotes from within) and to make something of themselves—with a little help.

Training the disadvantaged is important, but so is nurturing them in personal skills development.
Training and nurturing are perhaps the two most important considerations in employing individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, say those who have experience in working with them. More than anything, these workers need framework and structure.

Mini Maid teaches its franchise owners and managers how to train workers. In turn, franchise managers teach entry-level cleaning personnel how to clean houses in a systematic manner as a team. The procedures are highly organized and are broken down into specific chores. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, left to right (a technique also used by police at crime scenes) by teams of three to four workers. It takes less than an hour for them to clean a three-bedroom house.

Mini Maid's cleaning teams use special cleaning supplies developed by the firm that are color-coded and have instructions in English and Spanish so that workers from Latin cultures also can read them. But Ackerly says workers don't need to read to be able to use their products properly and to perform their jobs well.

Once workers prove their skills, they can go on to team-leader training and certification classes. Team leaders-in-training learn skills and information about leadership, conducting meetings, organizational development, company history and company procedures.

They learn how to be a leader through formal training and through examples set by the company's managers. Mini Maid managers have learned that sometimes they must counsel these formerly disadvantaged individuals on skills or problems not particularly job-related, such as personal grooming, personal finances or child-care dilemmas. After having received this type of attention to personal problems, team leaders also learn how to help and nurture their subordinates once they're in a position of authority. Leadership skills are something most of these workers never thought they could understand, much less demonstrate, because of all the negativity that has surrounded them throughout their lives. "We have created leaders out of people that everybody else has thrown away," says Ackerly.

That's exactly the way Carmen Glover felt before she applied to Coors' Golden Door Program nearly three years ago. Glover got a referral to the Coors program by a counselor at the battered women's shelter where she, and her children, were staying at the time. "I was trying to rebuild my life and I was probably at one of the lowest points of my life—being homeless and economically disadvantaged," Glover remembers. "I had tried to get interviews at several places, but because of my situation, I was deemed unstable or maybe not as dependable as some companies wanted. When I applied to Coors, I was on my last legs." Glover wrote a letter to the Golden Door's manager explaining her situation, the abuse she had endured and why she had to flee for her safety and the safety of her three children, who now are 18, 17 and 12. "I just needed a chance to try to build a life," says Glover, who was later promoted to be the coordinator for the company's supplier diversification and development program. It was possible because Coors gave her that first chance. Her dedication and determination took her the rest of the way.

When new hires enter the program, they work in Coors' investment recovery area (salvage yard) and are assigned to one of the area's primary functions, such as sorting and repairing pallets, repairing kegs, sorting steel, paper, plastics and metals, recycling irons, precious metals or oil, receiving chemicals or operating a forklift. The program maintains 10 full-time jobs and five temporary positions. After completing approximately six months of service and rating well on monthly reviews, full-time employees in the program can apply for other jobs within the company. Trainees receive extensive training, evaluation and support.

Just like Mini Maid, Coors feels that personal support is key to trainees' success. Coors makes personal assistance available through both in-house and external community sources. Instruction about certain personal issues also is included in much of the training. "For example, most people in the socioeconomically disadvantaged category aren't familiar with a checkbook or how to manage their finances," says Everett Oliver, manager for Coors' investment recovery, surplus and salvage operations and manager of the Golden Door Program. "We have a financial section in the program to assist them in setting up a checking account. For those who have low self-esteem or other emotional issues, we have employee and family counseling (both in-house) to help them with those problems. We don't force it on them, but we say right up front, 'If you need help in these areas, it's available, and it's available at no cost.'"

The company also refers employees to external support groups when the necessary expertise can't be found internally—such as for dealing with problems in housing or abuse situations. "At least 85% of [Golden Door trainees] use our help," says Oliver. "The other 15% are closed in terms of their personality and just refuse to accept any outside help."

Getting some outside assistance, however, is mandatory for many Golden Door trainees to stay in the program. For example, one of the criteria for being accepted into the program (in the educationally deficient category) is not having a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Trainees must commit to fulfilling that goal within two years of entering the program, or they're kicked out. "They don't get to come in and have a free ride and say, 'Now that I have a job I'm going to be okay,'" says Oliver. They must reach the goals they set for themselves and those goals the company sets for them.

DELSTAR managers also feel goal-setting is important. But often, the goals are more basic than with other new hires, such as understanding how to work a cash register. And sometimes, these individuals need more assistance than others in learning how to do that. "If someone's struggling, we'll come back and show them again one-on-one," says Moore. "We don't send them out [to the front lines] if they're having a problem."

Most of the employees who come to DELSTAR through community agencies already have been counseled on the fundamentals of personal caretaking and job basics, such as interviewing skills; how to find transportation, which includes figuring out bus schedules; and how to groom themselves for a job. If employees slip up or are unsure of the finer points on any of these topics once they start, their managers are happy to help. While managers must be more committed to helping previously disadvantaged employees grow in their jobs and in their personal lives, the payoffs, say the companies who employ the disadvantaged, are enormous.

What are the benefits of hiring people whom the rest of society has "thrown away"?
Oliver says the main motivation for Coors to employ individuals whom most employers consider unemployable is that it wants to give something back to the community. "Back in '68, Chairman Bill Coors designed this program to help with the reform process—getting people back into the mainstream, getting people back as real citizens doing real jobs," says Oliver. Of the program, Chairman Coors once said: "The real benefit of this program is what it does for the individuals. It returns them to a productive role in society."

Indeed, 70% of the people who have come into the program have either maintained employment at Coors or have moved on to other jobs elsewhere. They haven't returned to the lifestyles that first brought them to the program, such as lives of crime. It's an especially difficult pattern to break, but meaningful work has been able to turn some individuals away from such behavior over the long term.

Interestingly, an article in a recent issue of Time said a current drop in crime paralleled a drop in unemployment. The article further stated that although crime and unemployment don't rise and fall perfectly in tandem, policy-makers recognize that people without jobs are a crime wave waiting to happen. And a recent news release from the Washington, D.C.-based National Federation of Independent Business pointed out that those who commit crimes are more likely to do so when they're unemployed.

Sure, there are security risks of employing people who have violated the law—and might again. While Coors wants to be benevolent, it hasn't opened the Golden Door to every possible criminal. It doesn't allow into the program, for instance, people who have murdered or who have molested children. But it does give people with other degrees of criminal pasts a chance—if they express a true desire to make something better of their lives. At Coors, they get a fresh start. Once these individuals are in the program, no one discusses what their backgrounds are, unless they choose to disclose the information. All start on equal footing. Coors feels it's important to give them that chance. It's a commitment to individuals—and to society.

"Those ex-felons coming out are going to return to the community [anyway]," says Oliver. "So we're just saying, 'Let's take a step forward. Since they're already coming back, let's help them become what they really were meant to become: citizens who can contribute to society.' Most of them have been treated so unfairly for so many years—we want to give something positive back to them."

But charity isn't Coors' only motivation. In fact, Coors has changed the program's focus over the past two years. "It's moving from a people-based program to a business-based program," says Oliver. When the program started, it was designed simply to improve trainees' quality of life—with little emphasis on the benefit to Coors. Now, the program also focuses on how these employees—performing important tasks for the organization—can contribute to the overall success of the business.

Instead of looking at individuals as charity cases, the business looks at them as employees accountable to the bottom line. Empowerment and goal-setting are the keys. It's a two-way street: Managers set goals with employees; then they step out of their way so they can accomplish them. And it has paid off: "Our revenue for the investment recovery department has increased almost two-fold over the past two years just based on the issue of empowerment," says Oliver.

Employing people who have been disadvantaged in some way—by choice or by chance—is a conscious decision for organizations who choose them as another creative staffing choice. Most organizations actively screen out such people. If you're one of them, it might be wise to rethink your reasons for doing so. "It's like anything else," says Mini Maid's Ackerly. "Individuals can turn anything around if they want to—and if someone gives them a chance."

Personnel Journal, April 1996, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 106-113.

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