Ty Hookway had to check on an office building his building services company, CleanCraft, was set to clean in upstate New York, and what he saw changed his business and his life. The maintenance person who was supposed to do the work had called in sick, and when Hookway got there, he found one of his newer hires, Sanford Coley, in the building, working away in shorts rather than his uniform.
But what really got Hookway's attention: The shorts revealed that Coley was wearing an ankle bracelet. He was on parole for bank robbery. Hookway hadn't thought to ask about Coley's criminal record.
"I was thinking I should fire him," Hookway said. "Now he's one of my best friends."
More stories like this may be coming to offices like yours. With the job market tight, ex-felons and other workers who often struggled to find jobs are getting a second look, according to a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management, which surveyed more than 2,000 corporate managers and HR executives nationwide on their attitudes about ex-offenders for a report released in May.
Unemployment among ex-felons isn't explicitly tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it was estimated at 27 percent last year by the Prison Policy Initiative. But some researchers think it's even higher — informal estimates claim as many as half of released convicts failed to find jobs or stayed out of the labor force. Since an estimated one-third of U.S. adults have at least an arrest record, according to the human resources society, it's a lot of people.
"This isn't a problem of aspirations, it's a structural problem involving discrimination and a lack of opportunities available to people who have been to prison," said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. "It really takes employers who are willing to let go of their biases in pursuit not only of equality but of the best candidates."
Corporations are showing at least some signs of interest, advocates say. In addition to SHRM's study, the job site Glassdoor barred job listings from employers who intend to weed out ex-offenders. New Jersey-based consultant Eric Mayo says a long list of top American companies have proved themselves open to hiring ex-offenders, mostly for service jobs, ranging from minimum-wage employers from McDonald's to CNBC parent Comcast and, in Mayo's Atlantic City backyard, casinos, which he said are practically cities unto themselves, demanding an array of service workers.