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Heather Ronnow of Kronos Foods: Hiring the Whole Person

Truly inclusive employment moves beyond standard diversity and inclusion efforts. It requires employers to innovate around how they hire talent to include those with barriers to employment - poverty, lack of education, criminal records, substance abuse histories, transportation challenges. It also requires employers to support these new talent pools to achieve their potential.

This is the first in a series of interviews with employers who prioritize truly inclusive employment. Read on to learn both WHY and HOW Heather Ronnow of Kronos World Cuisine is making work work for individuals who previously have been sidelined by the mainstream economy.

-Dani Houchin, Executive Director, OWF

Heather Ronnow

Chief Human Resources Officer

Kronos World Cuisine

Tell us about Kronos World Cuisine.

Kronos World Cuisine is a Chicago-based company which operates as a manufacturer of gyros and other Mediterranean and specialty foods. The company offers specialty meat, sauces, pies, desserts, yogurt, flatbreads, and bakery products. Kronos produces and distributes its products to restaurants, hospitals, businesses, schools, and universities. Established by Chris Tomaras in 1975, it is the largest manufacturer of gyros in the world.

Tell us a little bit about your own career trajectory.

After law school I worked in labor relations at Chicago Newspaper Guild, and then onto US Foods where gained a lot of respect for some folks on the employer side. I was in Human Resources and Employer Relations at several firms before starting at Kronos in 2018.

Tell us about entry-level jobs at Kronos.

Kronos has a number of entry-level positions that require little experience or training. For example we have general labor which is either in our bakery department, meat department or dairy, and that will typically be a packaging job. We have sanitizers, which are all around the production area because food safety requires that we avoid opportunities for cross contamination. As of late, due to the health crisis, we also have a fever check position.

Historically we have not required a high-school diploma for most entry-level general labor positions at Kronos.

In other positions we have English and math tests, and the idea there is that you have to be able to read an evacuation map and you have to be able to understand the basic language that’s going to be on a warning label.

We have not done a criminal background check. We do ask at the appropriate stage of the process if there are any felony convictions and review that as an appropriate risk management step that our current employees would expect us to take. We need to check and see if we're considering risk of violence in the workplace. Convictions don't mean somebody is going to be violent, but if there is a job related pattern there we do feel we need to ask about it.

Each month Kronos provides a meal to all shifts in appreciation for their work. We also celebrate “Kronoversaries” monthly with sweets. To balance that out, once a week we provide fresh fruit for “Fresh Start Monday”.

What methods have you used to reach entry-level talent?

When I joined Kronos the company was growing dramatically, which meant that we had to consider innovative ways of attracting and retaining employees. There’s a short term and a long term aspect to that. The quicker solutions that most leadership is looking for is an opportunity to draw attention to populations that are available for work and interested in work.

We do everything we can to pull out all the stops in terms of getting the word out.

We have a referral bonus for current employees, and have posted physical flyers at Goodwill stores and local community entities such as churches and schools.

The new tech aspects for us include posting to Facebook and LinkedIn. Facebook was especially helpful as it gave employees and friends and family the opportunity to forward something along to a potential recruit.

We also try to communicate with candidates by text. HR systems aren't necessarily caught up with that, so our current recruiting module unfortunately doesn’t support applicant tracking. So we do a little bit of everything and try to keep up with tracking it all ourselves.

We also work with employment partners such as Cara to meet our inclusive employment goals.

Editor's Note: Cara is a non-profit organization that has helped people affected by poverty to get and keep quality jobs.

How does Kronos remove barriers to employment?

We partnered with Cara because the students they work with are interested in developing life skills, and those soft skills line up with what we’re looking for in an employment setting.

Because they are a city of Chicago based organization, their students are coming to them without transportation, so initially we weren't sure that it was going to work to partner with Kronos because of the geography. Knowing that was going to be an issue, I had to quantify what it would mean to offer up transportation services.

What we landed on financially was just that we might as well do an UberPOOL from the closest L stop. So we set a time and set up a couple of authorized supervisors to call for that Uber each day and made it work that way. It had the additional advantage of giving the students a built-in community from sharing that commute.

Orientation includes team building, sharing of stories and experiences.

What is challenging about re-employment education and life skills?

A challenge we have as employers of entry-level talents is that there is a significant gap between how we educate and how effectively we prepare our children and students to be employed in this country.

We have viewed education and business as separate segments of reality, and we haven't looked at it holistically.

Employers have their own obligations to prepare people and give them a longer ramp to successful employment and to provide the training that's appropriate for their business and their workforce. But we struggle to re-train on core societal, emotional, conflict management, and life skills. We assume that people are coming in with that, and they're not; we just have to figure out a better solution to that. If private partnerships work for building new stadiums, we should be able to make it work for entry-level employment.

How do you communicate the value of inclusive employment to colleagues and executives?

The toughest thing when trying to open eyes to the value of inclusive employment is having an honest conversation about the competencies that make someone successful in a manufacturing role. And, ironically, managers being uncomfortable about entertaining candidates that have had discord and potentially extreme difficulty in their life prevents them from seeing the benefits of somebody who has come through adversity in their life and come out with greater resilience and often greater patience.

Resilience is more valuable to an entry level position in a growing company than someone with experience.

How do you foster successful partnerships with employment partners?

We worked with the supervisors of these students to make them aware of their circumstances. We didn't want to say this is a special group that is coming in with special needs. It was more about conveying that we're working with an agency that's helping us find talent, and they're traveling a long way, and we want to make it worth your while and their while to attend to the issues that they have in making their way out here.

We didn't want to present them as needing more attention, but we did want to present them as deserving more consideration.

Where do you think your personal commitment to equity and fairness comes from?

I grew up with two sisters and a mother and father who were very focused on social services. My mom was a nurse and my dad was involved with social work and ministry. In the seventies my parents were very focused on equal housing, so I had an interest in that.

We had direct conversations about inclusivity, but even more of their teaching style came organically.

There was a focus on who was invited to whose birthday parties and how inclusive or exclusive that was, or who we conversed with and socialized with. It was important to them not just to have a diverse group of friends, but also to talk about why. I would be pressed to be considerate of, and befriend folks of many different backgrounds.

When we started up a new line recently, we invited Cara to bring their Motivations Circle method to us.

Do you think employers have an obligation to be inclusive employers?

I believe employers have an obligation to their employees, and ultimately to their shareholders, to be responsible and ethical entities. That's a very vague statement, but we're seeing that expand into new challenges in what it means to have equitable employment opportunities, and we have to think more deeply about that. We've had decades now of equal employment laws that people are still scratching their heads over, which is shameful.

There's something about how we treat business and think of business that is still more about returns than it is about being an employer of people. That's a challenge right now.

Is the HR profession preparing ourselves to really be business partners and then marry those business questions with our societal questions? And by society, I mean the broader society, but also the society of the organization. How are you behaving and how are we treating each other? So it's going to be an interesting time as these questions get deeper. And it's a chance for organizations to reconsider what it means to be a responsible employer.

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