Front-line workers are the foundation of a good cleaning company. When a building service contractor employs quality custodians, those employees lend great strength to the company’s image and reputation. After all, it is the front-line workers who interact with tenants and customers on a daily basis in buildings being cleaned. They are the faces of the company. Without those workers, as many BSCs know, a foundation can quickly crumble.

Many company presidents and CEOs rarely have time to even see their workers, much less discuss the industry’s pertinent issues with them. The front-line workers and supervisors who talked to Contracting Profits for this story share their experiences and opinions about illegal immigration, training, turnover and the stigma of working in the industry.

It’s a respect thing
That custodial work is not glamorous is perhaps an understatement. Workers are well aware of this, and believe a good custodian should have a strong work ethic that comes from within — a desire to do their job correctly and do it well.

“I get noses turned up at me and sideways glances more times than I care to even remember,” says Bonnie Norton, housekeeper for IH Services Inc., in Greenville, S.C. Inside and outside of the building she works in, the negative connotations projected on her because of her job are glaring. People have told her she should have done so much more with her life — as if cleaning is a bad way to make a living.

“I ‘should have gone to college,’ I ‘should have been sitting in the office instead of cleaning the office.’ … I chose a different path. And that’s just it. That’s just me. It doesn’t make me any less than, or any better,” Norton says.

Norton’s supervisor, Account Manager Kevin Davis, says the attitude customers have had toward workers has plagued some accounts. The resulting problems can make the job much harder for a company and its workers and are difficult to overcome, he says.

“We’ve had problems in the past when dealing with our own clients. … It never fails that when something comes up missing in this facility, we are the first ones that they knock on the door and make a phone call to,” Davis says. “And that shouldn’t happen.”

The assumption that because most cleaning workers are lower-income, they will cause problems is false, yet is perpetuated by many people in the general public, he adds.

To the contrary, many front-line employees are very hard working, holding down two or even three jobs to support themselves and their families.

Christy Lopez, a housekeeper for Great Lakes Cleaning in South Bend, Mich., cleans an office building five days a week in addition to working another full-time job. The cleaning position is not all that challenging, she says, but that doesn’t make it OK to slack or take it less seriously.

“Not ‘just anybody’ can do it. You’ve got to want to do it, and if you don’t put your pride into it you’re not going to do a good job,” Lopez says.

Finding the right workers
Everyone agrees turnover is a huge problem for BSCs. In an industry in which turnover sometimes exceeds 100 percent, hiring and retaining good employees is crucial to a cleaning company’s operations. While training is a key component of retention, keeping lines of communication open and extending gratitude for a job well done is also important to workers.

“I think we should not be prone to just hiring a body to just put in the workplace,” Cross says.

The front-line workers interviewed for this article admit they haven’t stayed with their employer for the pay or the benefits, which all agree could be better. They say they love their coworkers and the people who work in the buildings they clean, and they have support from their bosses, and those factors have translated to many years of satisfied employment.

Some workers don’t know exactly why there’s such a huge turnover in the cleaning industry. Jennifer Standsell, housekeeper for IH Services, says it’s probably the low quality of workers available. When workers don’t take their jobs seriously or even show up at all, it makes it harder for everyone else, she says.

Coworkers don’t have to be perfect, she adds.

“Just someone that does their work as well as I do and doesn’t mess around and takes their job seriously,” Standsell says.

Standsell’s coworker, Amanda Wood, says turnover’s not just a revolving door of employees, but it’s also a situation in which people who are hired never show up for their first day of work.

“Some people come here and they think it’s a job where they can just play around,” Wood says. “But some of our workers are really, really good.”

Positively reinforcing those who do a good job is a routine part of management for Cross, as employees in general perform better when they feel they’re appreciated, he says.

“I compliment my employees when they do a good job,” Cross says. “Everyone likes to be appreciated. So simply saying, ‘You did good on that,’ or even a simple thank you — everyone likes that immediate gratification.”

When employees have done a good job, especially on a special project, supervisors and bosses should reward them, says Norton.

“We’re not looking for a raise, a bonus, a night on the town,” she says. “Every once in a while, how about a thank you? … We don’t want much. Give me a Happy Meal, give me a pat on the back. Give me a thank you.”

Training appreciated
Front-line workers and supervisors agree that training is one of the most important factors affecting BSCs. When initial training is done properly, it demonstrates to employees exactly how their jobs should be performed. When that training is followed up on to ensure retention of proper cleaning techniques, it reinforces the correct behaviors and allows for the correction of anything the employee is doing wrong. The benefits of good training stretch beyond that, however, to issues such as turnover, injury and worker’s compensation.

“Training is very important,” says Jennifer Oliver, housekeeper for IH Services. “We work with a lot of chemicals and of course, there’s a threat of injury, so we have to pay attention to the things our company provides for our health and safety, as well as that of others.”

The key to good training, say Wood and Standsell, is to demonstrate how the job should be done and follow that with specific expectations.

“You just get out there and show them how it’s supposed to be done, the expectations of it and what you think it should be,” Standsell says.

Good training keeps workers around, as it conveys that the company cares about their safety and that they’re doing a good job.

“I believe that training is directly related to retention as well as excellent customer service,” Gant says, citing a Building Service Contractors Association International convention seminar during which he heard that the lack of training is the number one reason for people leaving the industry. “People want to know that what they are doing is correct. There is no other way to achieve this than solid training and frequent quality inspections.”

Mokhtar Hamou, housekeeper for ABH Services, agrees.

“Training is important because it gives opportunities to the employee to feel comfortable in the workplace,” Hamou says, adding it also lets trainers evaluate their success. “The big challenge when dealing with employee training is to communicate to the new employee the importance of doing a good job.”

Training should be an ongoing process for employers, says Cross. That gives employees a comfort level with what they’re doing and the fact that they know what they’re doing.

“When they feel that they’re being supported in that area, I think they strive to do even better,” Cross says.

And a happy, satisfied worker translates to a satisfied customer, he adds, which then likely becomes a long-term customer.

The illegal immigration factor
Few subjects are more touchy at this moment in American history than the subject of illegal immigration. Legal immigrants make up a good percentage of front-line workers in the cleaning industry, but most BSCs know of at least one competitor in their market who is hiring undocumented workers.

While most in the cleaning industry do understand the plight of the illegal immigrant, they dislike the unfortunate reality that the hiring of illegal workers at much lower salaries has affected the pay scale for everyone.

Lopez says she can’t help but harbor hard feelings about the situation.

“If they have their papers and stuff, and are legal, that’s fine. I have no problems with them having a job here,” she says.
She doesn’t feel good about companies hiring illegals because she feels the workers are being taken advantage of.

“They’re paying them dirt cheap to get by without paying somebody more money,” Lopez says.

The situation hits front-line workers hard, especially in the pocketbook.

“As an industry, typically our employees are of lower economic strata to begin with, so when you have the illegal immigrants competing for those same jobs, it depresses the job market in terms of pay rates for employees, and I think that’s unfortunate for those citizens of the United States who are legal and seeking legal employment,” Cross says.

Norton has been in the industry for many years, and remembers being paid more per hour a decade ago. After an influx of immigrants in her region, pay dropped up to $3 an hour.

It’s also unfair to businesses that don’t hire illegal workers, says Hamou, because it’s difficult to compete against companies that are putting out lower bids because they’re not paying employees as much.

Gant agrees.

“Contractors are able to propose very low prices to customers due to the low wages they are paying, decreasing the chances of honest companies to attain some accounts,” he says.

Active listening
Though BSC execs and front-line workers rarely get a chance to pow-wow about industry issues — or even things more close to home, like company policies, work environments and their personal lives — the workers interviewed in this story wouldn’t mind seeing their bosses more often. A few commented the only time they see the “bigwigs” is when something negative happens. Part of a worker retention strategy might include meeting them face-to-face, shaking their hands and thanking them for a job well done.

Also, lines of communication should be open in any cleaning company. Communication between front-line workers and their supervisors, and supervisors and their superiors is important for trust- and team-building. Listening to what subordinates have to say with an objective ear is an important skill for BSCs who want to have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in their companies.