Call centers are not, typically, very happy places—especially around the holidays. Workers have quotas to make, and often sit in bleak cubicles, headsets on, plowing through calls from stressed shoppers, as they count down the minutes until lunch.
But the employees in this call center in Vermont are rosy-cheeked and—can it be?—smiling. They field calls about misplaced packages and gluten-free dough, while surrounded by orange and red Thanksgiving decorations and a wall lined with baking gear that they’re allowed to borrow. They still have quotas—10 calls per hour, per agent—but they know they won’t get fired if they spend 45 minutes talking to a woman with cancer about baking, as one agent recently did.
“People just really care about each other and look out for each other,” said Julie Porter, a call center employee. “This is the company where somebody left a dollar bill on the floor, and sent around an email being like, ‘I found your dollar bill in the hallway if you’re looking for it.’”
Welcome to King Arthur Flour, a 225-year-old company that prides itself on treating its employees well. It’s not just lip service: King Arthur is one of a growing number of companies that has incorporated as a new type of business called a benefit corporation, which means its mission is to consider the needs of society and the environment, in addition to profit.
There are 27 states that have passed legislation allowing companies to incorporate as benefit corporations since Maryland passed the first such law in 2010. Delaware’s governor signed a benefit corporation law last year, opening up the designation to the thousands of businesses incorporated there, which include nearly half of all publicly-traded companies.
There are also Certified B-Corporations, a separate process available to companies in every state: The companies pledge to think about people and the planet in addition to profit, and an outside nonprofit inspects them and makes sure they’re doing so. The assessment process begins with companies filling out an extensive questionnaire about how they are governed, how workers are paid and evaluated, what their mission is, what types of people (women, minorities) they employ, and what sustainability practices they have in place. Then the nonprofit inspects their books and scores them on each category, and if they fail to receive a certain grade, they lose certification.
Last year, King Arthur had the second-highest “worker” score of any Certified B-corporation, signifying it is one of the best places to work. Employees get one paid week of parental leave, 40 hours of paid volunteer time that they can take during company hours, and both free and subsidized baking classes. There is exercise equipment in the company’s manufacturing and office buildings, which are spread out across a small plot of land just across the river from Hanover, New Hampshire.
For Thanksgiving, every employee will receive a locally-sourced turkey, or a vegetable basket. It’s not just white-collar workers who benefit: Lower-income employees receive a subsidy for a CSA where they can get farm-grown vegetables, and pay less for their health and other benefits.
Treating employees well can be expensive. But the company is always looking for more benefits to offer, said Suzanne McDowell, the VP of Human Resources.
“We take care of our people—the whole person that comes into work every day,” she said. “It’s the employer that we want to be—it feels right. It feels balanced. And it could probably be more.”
As I’ve written about before, this used to be the standard way American companies treated their employees. In the heady, post-World War II years, companies offered free turkeys at Thanksgiving and gave employees perks, hoping to recruit and retain the most talented workers. But as the pool of available labor grew, companies figured out that they didn’t need to keep employees for life: If one person left, they could hire someone else. And as activist investors pushed companies to downsize and distribute profits back to shareholders, many employers gave up on considering the needs of their employees when deciding how to run their business.
Now, some economists say there may be a move the other way. Just look at what happened this summer, when New England grocery chain Market Basket forced out its longtime CEO—who had treated employees and customers well—reportedly because the company wanted to give more money back to shareholders. Employees protested and customers boycotted the store until the company gave up and allowed the CEO to return.
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