With unemployment in the U.S. at a five-decade low, businesses across the country are struggling to hire good people. That's led some firms to raise wages, sweeten perks, or put gargantuan efforts into recruiting. But others are taking a more radical approach: hire anyone who walks in the door, no questions asked. 

From do-gooder experiment to small but growing movement.

The idea, known as "open hiring," was pioneered by Yonkers, New York-based Greyston Bakery. As writer Leigh Buchanan reported in a 2015 Inc.com profile, the company was founded by zen Buddhist Bernie Glassman in 1982 to provide jobs in a troubled community. Back in the day, it was a radical do-gooder concept. Now, a small-but-growing number of businesses are testing out the idea as both a way to advance a social mission and deal with the brutal hiring landscape. 

"Ovenly, a New York City bakery, and Hot Chicken Takeover, a restaurant chain in Columbus, Ohio, rely on what they call fair-chance hiring... a business practice whereby applicants without traditional resumes, interviews, and reference letters are given equal consideration as their peers with such credentials," Mashable reported recently.  

The concept has also made it to Europe, where Dutch e-commerce company MamaLoes has adopted Greyston's open hiring model. "We started hiring people without asking any questions," MamaLoes director Loes de Volder told EuroNews. "We let them do the job and prove themselves."

And while true open hiring is still far from mainstream, there is evidence that employers are increasingly open to hiring those with a spotty history they would have once immediately screened out. 

Greyston is helping to spread the word, setting up the Center for Open Hiring to help other businesses implement the practice. "To date, 14 other organizations, including Unilever and the Stern School of Business at NYU, have joined the Center," Fast Company reports

Exactly how crazy an idea is this? 

Open hiring continues to be a niche approach, and one that works only for certain roles that don't require specialized skills. But plenty of businesses need cleaners, warehouse workers, and manual laborers. If you're not a zen monk or social activist, how insane is this approach to filling those jobs? 

Even the biggest advocates of open hiring admit it has risks and downsides. At Greyston, each new hire is put through a 10-month paid apprenticeship program. About half of those who start it will finish. It is clearly not true that everyone who walks in the door and asks for a job can or will stick around to do that job well. 

But the important question isn't whether open hiring is hassle free, it's how its hassles stack up against those of traditional hiring. There's evidence that open hiring is not just a social good, but also a bottom line benefit to the businesses brave enough to try it. 

"While the annual employee turnover rate in similar manufacturing and production industries hovers between 30 percent and 70 percent, at the Greyston bakery, it's just around 12 percent," notes Fast Company. Onboarding an employee at Greyston costs $1,900, compared to a nationwide average of $4,500.

Those with a criminal record, who make up a large share of those who benefit from open hiring, may be particularly likely to stick around. Even in today's economy, this population has an unemployment rate of 27 percent, and just 12.5 percent of employers say they are willing to accept an application from someone with a record. It's extremely hard for those with a record to get a job, and they know it, which means they appreciate it when they're given a chance.  

Research reflects this. "A study published in 2018 showed that members of the military with incarceration histories were promoted more quickly -- and to higher ranks than those with no conviction record," Mashable reports. While according to CNBC, "82 percent of executives say their ex-offender hires have been at least as successful as their average hire." Findings are mixed on whether this population is more likely to get fired. 

The bottom line seems to be those with nontraditional resumes are a mixed bag. They won't always work out as employees, but when they do they tend to repay the chance they were given with loyalty and hard work. And they represent a huge pool of underutilized potential. One in three Americans have been arrested on a felony charge. 

Open, or fair chance, hiring isn't a cure-all, and it won't work for all businesses, but with so many people sitting on the sidelines due to past troubles, and the job market the tightest it has been in half a century, it's a model that's at least worth looking at for some roles at some companies. 

Published on: Jan 29, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.