It’s no secret that the contract cleaning industry relies on entry-level, unskilled labor, or that it regularly hires and re-trains employees. Typical annual cleaning worker turnover rates are about 75 percent; some building service contractors report that they replace their entire front-line staff once, twice, even three times within a year. BSCs understand that they must compete with other employers for a worker’s loyalty, and that many staff members may view cleaning as a temporary part-time job to help pay the bills. It’s the nature of the business.

Some contractors have much lower turnover in locations where there typically are problems retaining cleaning workers. If they can hold onto and develop valuable workers, why can’t others in the industry do the same?

It doesn’t always boil down to pay, benefits or job site — often, management’s attitude is to blame. BSCs have the power to influence workers in the most subtle of ways, sometimes without even realizing the effect they have on a person’s willingness to stick with a contract cleaning firm. At times, a team leader’s assumptions of how much potential a given employee might or might not have, can influence their actions, hindering that employees chances of success and hurting overall operations.

The perspective of pop psychology
Regardless of upbringing, background or association, human beings all are inclined to stereotype others, says Bruce Scagel, senior consultant with Simmons Associates Inc., New Hope, Penn.

“It’s what the mind does to draw on past history and be efficient,” he says. “But unconscious stereotyping can be inaccurate and inappropriate. It can adversely impact interviewing, hiring, performance evaluations, promotions and firings.”

Perceptions based on subjective feelings, if allowed to take precedent over objective data such as work experience, education or performance, can undermine the intentions of even the most noble managers, says Michael Blackstone, co-founder of People Notion Performance Training and Leadership Development in California.

“Perception is what leads to individual struggles with other employees when job duties or employment expectations are not explained,” he states. One client Blackstone recently worked with suffered from staff morale and performance issues, as well as a conflict between two groups of employees. After some investigation, Blackstone realized that misperceptions the two groups had of one another were the root of all the problems. Disarming the resulting factions required that employees got to know one another better, and got to understand their reasons for being there as a mutual goal.

To avoid such problems, BSCs need to establish a track record of success, confidence, and self-esteem, putting people in positions where they can win. It’s a great way to tap into people’s potential says Scagel. But it’s tricky to judge ability, he says – there’s no meter. Contractors have to proceed in steps, because trying to gauge how successful someone could become is a treacherous slope.

Resisting a negative attitude
So how does a supervisor, who especially needs to keep a fresh attitude and perspective about entry-level workers, keep an open mind after witnessing frequent turnover? Managers and consultants agree there are many effective safeguards they can mobilize.

One such safeguard starts before new applicants even come through the door, by training managers to assume the best, rather than the worst, about new employees.

“We try to do everything we can to offset [stereotypes], including training our managers to think proactively,” says Mark Enoch, vice president and general manager of Winans Services, Parksburg, W. Va. “We drill into them that the next applicant might be a supervisor six months from now.”

“When someone walks in our door, our mind-set is that they’re going to be the best worker we ever had, so it’s up to us to make that person the best cleaner we ever had,” agrees Scott Stevenson, CEO of DNS Corp., Madison, Wis. One part of that nurturing process is the orientation; when his workers attend the company’s in-house orientation and training programs, they usually stay at least 120 days.

Good communication on the front-end can promote future performance, but firms that make that investment are, unfortunately, the exception.

“It always amazes me how little communication there is between managers and new hires to set the stage for success,” says Scagel.

Unfortunately, assumptions made during the hiring and training process can carry over and affect employees’ entire tenure with the company.

“If a manager for any reason — often due to how much they have in common — forms a positive impression, it will continue almost forever,” he explains. “We find all too often managers spend more time — formally and informally — with those people they’re more comfortable with.”

Conversely, if a manager has an initial negative perception, it’s hard to break.

“It carries forward into that manager’s communications all around,” Scagel says. “Personal problems are dealt with in a harsher way. They may be more critical with that person than with someone they see as more positive or likable.”

He recommends supervisors step out of their comfort zones, and be around employees enough to provide accurate feedback and to better understand worker’s individual challenges.

Since there tends to be layers of management within a cleaning company, it can be impossible for upper-level leaders to know every worker, but team leads or building supervisors are the first people who should get to know workers. These managers then need to ensure that they share their knowledge of workers and their individual situations with other area or branch managers. And those higher-level executives still should make a concerted effort to stop to talk with one or two workers whenever they visit a site, to benefit from their interaction and information gathering.

Increasing general awareness
In addition to learning more about workers, managers also need to be aware of the potential for stereotypes to creep into their thought processes.

Scagel uses the example of a financial company that noticed a lack of Asian and Hispanic professionals in its ranks. After investigation, managers discovered that the firm’s recruiters translated lack of eye contact through the mores of American etiquette, equating it with low self-esteem and lack of confidence. In reality, Asian and Hispanic cultures view direct eye contact with authority as disrespectful.

“We said put a note to yourself at the bottom of your interview page: ‘Watch assumptions about the following,’” says Scagel. “If they’re a world-class candidate, coach them—don’t discount them on that one factor. Tremendous candidates were being cut out!”

Always question assumptions
Once recruits make it onto the job, assumptions still can affect managers’ attitudes.

For instance, from a business standpoint, employee tardiness is unacceptable, and many managers assume the late employee is lazy, or doesn’t care about the job. The reality, however, may be something else.

If an otherwise good employee suddenly starts showing up late, find out the specifics of the situation before rushing to reprimand. It might be due to a shift in the bus schedule, or to the person’s other job keeping them late during a busy time of the year.

Also, if an employee isn’t succeeding immediately, the specific job fit, and not the worker, may be the problem, says Enoch.

“Because turnover is a big factor, the onus is on us,” he states. “Perhaps, after 4 or 5 weeks we see they won’t make it, or we give them one more opportunity, and then they thrive and became a manager.”

Winans Services has found that some people, after months, still may struggle to do well in their positions. The reason could be that they aren’t suited to the type of cleaning or the type of facility they are assigned to, rather than a lack of work ethic. So Enoch tries to re-assign the employee to the right job to gain the most potential from that person.

Similarly, Stevenson gives bonuses to his managers for recognizing potential supervisors and team leads amongst the rank and file.

“It helps them keep an open mind to worker’s potential,” he says.

Creating a culture of positive reward also levels the perceptions playing field, because even new employees are viewed as potential future managers. As a result of this attitude, DNS Corp. managers stay with the company for an average of 15 years.

Teamwork, too, can help. Stevenson believes his firm’s strong focus on teamwork also helps supervisors evaluate individuals fairly.

“We’re only as good as our weakest link,” he explains. “We try to have supervisors and managers treat our employees like internal customers which gives a different viewpoint – they’re human beings with feelings and thoughts.”

Lori Veit owns Veit Communications in Madison.

Mind-sets need regular exercise
Bruce Scagel, senior consultant with Simmons Associates Inc., New Hope, Penn., suggests conducting this exercise to assess your attitude about people different from yourself.

Individually, in the quiet and confidentiality of your home, put three to four groups that exist in our society to paper. These could include white males, women, Hispanics, American Indians, Asians, African Americans, physically disabled individuals or other groups.

Allow yourself 30 to 40 seconds to write down every single word or phrase that comes into your mind. You cannot edit yourself.

The results for most people are very enlightening.

“What happens is people come up with a whole bunch of stereotypical words from history, media, parents and upbringing,” explains Scagel. “Whether we act on stereotypes, or not, is another thing, but it illustrates that the things are up there. We might even surprise ourselves by how these misconceptions can steer our behavior. It can limit people’s potential, their ability to thrive in their jobs, get promoted, and what have you.

”After we provide management and diversity training, we’ll implement goals for people. Often, managers go back and expand responsibilities because they recognize in the midst of the training: ‘Hey, I’ve probably been unfair — I need to give them more opportunities!’”