Underperforming employees are a challenge for any business, and the contract cleaning industry is no different. Building service contractors should try to correct the negative behavior and habits of employees, but also understand that it may be in their best interest to let troublesome workers go.

Those employees are a challenge for two important reasons, says Philip Barquer, SPHR, president of HR Alternatives Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif.: they are sometimes very nice people and can therefore be hard to confront, and creating a vacancy by firing an employee brings on a host of new problems.

An employee performing well even two-thirds of the time, Barquer says, is better than not having anyone on the job. Some employers will keep a person on even if the individual is performing substandard work. That is a choice every employer must make for themselves, and one most BSCs have regularly faced.

Problems caused by an underperforming employee are magnified in a smaller work setting. It’s usually in the best interest of the business to either work on improving the worker’s performance or let him or her go.

Identifying bad seeds

Sharon Dabney-Wooldridge, president of The Kleane Kare Team Inc. in Richmond, Va., says she looks for people with a good work ethic and a passion for cleaning. During the application process she asks a simple question: Do you like to clean? She tells them that if they’re merely looking to put money in their pockets, they won’t be happy.

“I look to see if they have a passion; if this is what they want to do,” she says. “Although it may be a part-time job for them, it’s a livelihood for most of us here.”

A poor work ethic among potential applicants is a problem for Freddie Jackson as well. Jackson, president of Cleanup Inc. in Decatur, Ga., says that some applicants appear to be more interested in earning a paycheck than in performing janitorial work. He has found that many young people in particular tend to view the work as demeaning. Some of his better workers are those in their 30s or 40s.

Major indicators of a problem employee are attendance issues such as tardiness and absences.

“It begins with attendance,” says Dabney-Wooldridge. Typically, once the attendance problems are noticed, she begins hearing complaints from customers and co-workers about the particular employee.

If need be, the supervisor on the job site can make adjustments for the tardy employee, but they don’t like to do that repeatedly.

Another sore spot for managers is cell phone dependence. With many jobs unsupervised, some workers feel they can slack off and chat on the phone while working. If one person talks on the phone, the others feel they can do the same.

Jackson says he has a good idea how long it takes to do a particular task, and pays accordingly. He makes it very clear to the workers that they get paid only for the number of hours he projects for the account. Wasted time, therefore, is unpaid time. That is a real incentive for his workers, he says.

While some employee behavioral and attitude problems are directly related to the job itself or work environment, sometimes it’s a personal problem that is affecting an employee’s performance. If the situation gets to the point where an employee needs to be confronted, it’s good to have some sensitivity when inquiring about the root of the behavior, says Dabney-Wooldridge.

“I don’t try to get too personal,” she says. “But I don’t want to seem impersonal either, because they do have a life. Sometimes that can have an effect on performance.”

Disciplinary process

Most BSCs have some type of disciplinary system that includes warnings, both verbal and written.

BSCs must discuss areas of concern as soon as they are identified, Barquer says.

“Be specific about what work isn’t getting done, and how it should be done,” he says. Also mention how the performance is affecting the workplace and everyone else’s productivity.

“You want to provide constructive criticism,” he says, “and more importantly, show them how to do the job correctly.” Remind the worker of your expectations, and suggest that he or she seek out a supervisor if a problem arises.

Avoid talking in terms of the employee himself or herself, Barquer adds.

Approach the situation in a coaching manner, Barquer suggests. Much like a coach talks with his team during the game to make necessary adjustments, BSCs should immediately approach any employees who appear to experiencing difficulties. Inform the employee of your concerns and the consequences if the behavior continues. By adopting more of a coaching strategy, you may be able to correct the problem and actually help the employee.

The first step is to have clearly defined job specifications and descriptions, Barquer says. An employee handbook explains all that as well as directions on whom to turn to if problems arise and policies regarding breaks and lunches. BSCs must review these guidelines with their employees to ensure they understand their roles.

Barquer says that many employers he’s worked with follow a progressive process of discipline. They start by speaking with the employee, and follow with one or two written warnings.

“The key,” he says, “is that whether a verbal or written warning, or even a suspension; the employee must understand what the expectations are and that there will be consequences.”

At Kleane Kare, employees get a verbal warning then up to three written warnings before they are terminated. The written warnings consist of two-part forms. One copy goes in the employee’s file, and the other is provided to the employee.

Warnings don’t have to mean an employee’s destined to be fired — often, they offer a second chance to workers who would like to keep their jobs. At Kleane Kare, management works with the underperforming employee to develop an action plan, which spells out corrective steps being taken and approximate timeframes.

These steps act as guides to help resolve issues and keep the worker on track, Dabney-Wooldridge says, and can be highly effective.

Sometimes more severe punishment is necessary. Jackson usually offers up to two warnings. But he’s quick to terminate employees who don’t perform well consistently, as accounts are easy to lose due to poor worker performance or appearance. He stresses the need to document all infractions an employee makes, and keeping those notes in the person’s file.

For example, Jackson says those caught talking on the phone are given a verbal warning, which is documented in the employee’s file. After two or three warnings, the worker is often suspended for a week. If the behavior continues, they’ll terminate the person. As he reviews an employee’s performance, Jackson takes into consideration the person’s attitude as well as aptitude.

“If I think they have the aptitude and the right attitude, then I’ll work with them,” he says. But if the person doesn’t have the right attitude or simply cannot learn the responsibilities of janitorial work, he will let the person go.

Jackson says while he tries to give employees the benefit of the doubt, he doesn’t hesitate to fire a problem employee. It’s not worth it to lose an account.

“It’s easy to lose an account,” he says, adding that he still feels the pain of losing a major account due to one bad employee. “I learned some valuable lessons from that experience.”

THOMAS R. FUSZARD is a business writer based in New Berlin, Wis.