On Jan. 6, 2021, Raheem Uqdah was, like many in the U.S., in shock. The CSR director for Curaleaf, one of the largest national cannabis companies, gathered with his BIPOC co-workers — digitally, thanks to the pandemic — to hold space for each other’s fear, panic and hurt regarding the Capitol Building siege.
The multistate cannabis operator (MSO) could ultimately create this kind of safe space for its employees, Uqdah explained, because of the prevailing workplace culture. Uqdah entered his role in November 2020; he can’t say for sure if the anti-racism awakening that summer directly led to a proliferation of CSR roles in his industry.
“I do know that, at Curaleaf, that was a sincere moment in our culture. That changed the way we relate to one another,” Uqdah, who uses he/they pronouns, said. “It changed our need to build employee resource groups and to create safe spaces for people to have conversations and digest really difficult things.”
In his role as CSR director, he describes the creation of a positive feedback loop of internal and external diversity, equity and inclusion practices. A halo effect, where the glow is felt from within.
The task of maintaining this kind of positive feedback loop as Curaleaf director of corporate social responsibility, however, does not come without challenges, Uqdah said. In fact, these challenges often mirror the hardships many HR teams or departments of one face in trying to keep abreast of the ever-changing DEI landscape.
“Hearing people say they came to Curaleaf or they felt like this was a good opportunity because of the work highlighting and rooted in good … to me, is the ultimate feedback,” they said.
This internal halo effect also bodes well for the company’s talent pipeline. “Not only are we projecting these values, but then people are finding us based off of those values — and wanting to come reinforce those values.”
Human resource management is even more difficult in an emerging industry such as legal cannabis — where, as business experts have told HR Dive, progressive ideas and passion abound, but compliance regulations are strict.
Beyond the double-edged sword of treading new ground, the cannabis industry makes for a notable CSR case study due to the harm cannabis policy has caused so many people — particularly, mass incarceration of Black and Latinx people.
It’s for this reason that many cannabis companies, including HCM provider Würk, donate money to the Last Prisoner Project, a criminal justice reform nonprofit championing formerly incarcerated cannabis law offenders.
Second-chance hiring has been the “cornerstone” of Blue River Terps’ hiring principles, Jessica Pelletier, company CEO, told HR Dive. “Not really on purpose, more just because that's how it is in the cannabis industry,” she said. “Most of the most qualified candidates have some sort of marijuana charge.”
Choosing between the potential hire with lots of weed-related work experience and the accomplished job seeker with an irrelevant resume, Pelletier explained that she “will usually go for the person with actual cannabis experience.” Diverse hiring comes with the territory; most people affected by cannabis-related convictions are people of color, she acknowledged.
Speaking for Blue River Terps’ Executive Director Shanel Lindsay, Business Development Director Michael Latulippe and COO Tony Verzura, Pelletier said that diverse hiring practices are “something that we all have done and have been passionate about for many years — before it became a buzzword type of situation in cannabis.”
Not only is cannabis CSR difficult, but sometimes, employment laws make some aspects of the job impossible. For example, Curaleaf set a goal to make 10% of hires from communities that have been directly affected by the war on drugs.
“This means that they themselves had some sort of cannabis conviction or that a direct relative — mother, father, brother, child — had a cannabis charge against them. We have learned so much about the hiring and badging process through this,” Uqdah said. “Because what we found out is that in quite a few markets, it was not legal for us to hire from that community.”
A job seeker with a federal charge is “ineligible for badging or for plant-touching roles,” Uqdah explained. (Plant-touching is cannabis jargon for growing and cultivation positions.) Advocates for criminal conviction restrictions on licensing point to the necessity of preventing weed sales to minors or gang members, preventing diversions of products to states lacking weed decriminalization and preventing the use of legal cannabis business as a cover for illegal activity.
“We've had to be very creative in how we're able to hire because of the policies,” Uqdah said, mentioning employee relocation or placing talent in corporate roles. Appealing for changes in federal and regional employment legislation can also be a part of a social impact director’s responsibilities; Uqdah pointed to Curaleaf’s lobbying activity regarding more broad badging laws.
Scholars and advocates have pointed out the irony of this hiring legislation. “Given the hypocrisy of keeping drug criminals out of the legal drug industry, some states and localities have taken the opposite stance that convicted drug criminals should receive preferential treatment in licensing,” Allie Howell, a researcher at the Reason Foundation, wrote.
Massachusetts is one of those states — in fact, Blue River Terps has seen so much of its success for being there, Latulippe and Pelletier explained to HR Dive. In fact, state legislation addressing cannabis employment has only bolstered their social impact goals.
CSR may be challenging, but the consensus seems to be that it’s well worth it. If HR pros can clearly communicate their mission and goals, the right job candidates will continue to find them, it seems — and they will sustain that positive, mutually aligned workplace culture.