It’s no stretch to say that janitorial work has gotten a bad rap.

“I think the public sees janitorial work as ‘not as desirable as other types of work,’ similar to the manner in which they see obese people not as desirable as thin people, old people not as desirable as young people,” says Carol Dean, executive vice president of Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) in Fairfax, Va. “I think generally people view cleaning — even with respect to their personal cleaning of their homes — as one of the least desirable things to do over a weekend or in an evening,”

That janitorial work generally is done at night, away from the public eye, pays less than some other jobs, and involves cleaning toilets and other fixtures used by others also helps cement this view of the industry in the public eye, she adds.

“When you think of ‘janitor,’ what pops up?” asks Paul Condie, vice president of GMI Building Service in San Diego. “For many people, it’s the beginning of The Carol Burnett Show, where she’s got the broom and mop, and steps in the bucket.”

While popular culture does help perpetuate the stereotypes, part of cleaning’s image problem is our own doing, Condie says.

“Some operations have just lead people to cement an unprofessional image,” he says. “They don’t properly train their workers, and they give them improper uniforms.”

Slowly, though, the industry is beginning to change its image. Associations and individual building service contractors are working to elevate the perception of janitorial work from a low-wage, dirty job that no one wants to that of well-trained, professional guardians of public health. In the process, they instill pride in their workers and in their industry.

In fact, Todd Hopkins feels so strongly about pride that he named his company after it.

“I felt that the word ‘pride’ would say it all,” explains Hopkins, CEO of Office Pride Inc. in Franklin, Ind. “Customers take pride in their facilities, and we’re there to match it.”

In the public eye
One important factor contributing to this shift in public perception is that janitors themselves are more visible than in the past, says Steve Spencer, facilities senior specialist in cleaning and interior maintenance for State Farm Insurance, Bloomington, Ill. The combination of some buildings trending toward day cleaning, as well as building employees working into the evening, means customers and janitors will come in contact more often. This can be a good step toward improving professionalism, Spencer says.

“Now, the cleaners won’t be the unseen people in the night, lurking in the shadows,” he explains. Such contact humanizes the janitors and makes their work visible.

This visibility means that BSCs will need to pay more attention to their hiring practices.

“Hire people that fit the culture of your company,” Hopkins says. “If your company is defined by pride and professionalism, hire people who show up on time, and make a good first impression.”

“Good contractors I see are getting quality employees,” Spencer adds. “It takes more time and thought to find them. Employees need to be motivated, well-dressed and hard-working, because they’re ambassadors of your company.”

Well-dressed is a point not lost on Condie.

“It’s interesting how uniforms are overlooked,” he says. “Try this mental exercise. Picture a police officer. Then, a firefighter. A member of the military. Finally, a janitor.”

What’s the difference? Most people, when picturing the first three, pictures someone in a uniform. But when they think of a janitor, the image varies.

“Those fields have standard uniforms,” he says. “A police officer wears blue; a fireman has his gear; and the military member is standardized based on which branch he’s in. But there’s no industry standard for janitors.”

Condie would like to see an industry-wide, recognizable uniform for the cleaning industry.

“Nobody has ever stood up for standard uniforms,” he says. “If everyone would commit, I think it would really help.”

In the meantime, Condie says if a company doesn’t have its own uniforms, a clean, proper appearance is a must.

Diplomatic relations
But a professional appearance is only part of the battle. Diplomacy is key. If we think of employees as ambassadors, it helps if they know about the culture, geography and business protocols of their customers.

“I think BSCs have to get to know their customers,” says Spencer. “That lets me know that they’re interested in how we do business. I think there’s a tendency at times to forget that buildings have personalities.”

Also, employees must know that their customers are important, says Hopkins. Too many managers are critical of their own customers in front of their employees, which can kill motivation.

“They tell employees, before they go into a building, that the customer has these problems, they slow-pay, they’ll complain,” he says. “Right from the beginning, the employee won’t have the motivation to do the job. They’re not excited.”

Instead, Hopkins tries to instill a positive attitude from the top down. Before his workers head into a new building, he lets them know that this customer is the most important one the company has.

“I think that helps instill employee confidence,” he says. “We let them know that we assigned them the most important customer.”

Don’t just train; certify
In addition to customer-service knowledge, technical competence is vital. Some BSCs are turning to certification programs, either in-house/self-created or external, such as those from associations, to give their training added importance and legitimacy. For instance, Ron Goerne offers a color-coded, card-based system for cleaning training; more importantly, once new employees are trained, they take tests and earn uniform patches and certificates. Goerne, a former BSC, is now with 1-2-3 Training Systems, a firm specializing in cleaning training, in Bloomington, Ill.

A ceremony is even held to honor the newly certified worker. Once the employees are trained, tested and certified, they head to the job site, where they then train their supervisor on what they just learned.

“That creates a bond between the worker and supervisor on the first night,” Goerne says. “The employee can demonstrate that he knows the expectations, and by training the supervisor, it sends the message that nobody’s above anyone else — it’s a team effort.”

And don’t underestimate the power of certification, says Goerne. One of his workers, Bill, had no education, no high school diploma, but he was very dedicated.

“Bill got a certificate, and was very proud,” Goerne says. “He made a career in cleaning. When he died, he wanted to be buried with his certificates.”

Contractors wanting an industry-wide certification for their employees have a few options. For instance, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification awards designations in 15 specialties, including carpet cleaning, restorative drying and odor control.

BSCAI, known for its manager-level designations, will also soon get into the employee-certification field.

“BSCAI is in the process of developing three more certification programs — Certified Floor Care Technician, Certified Carpet Care Specialist, and Certified Safety Manager — all of which are designed to serve as both training programs for employees and examples of competence to clients,” Dean explains.

The association already offers a supervision seminar, which will assist employers in bringing programs in-house, so employees can be trained in groups at a reasonable cost, Dean adds.

A professional standard
In addition to training and certification, another development that Spencer expects to help professionalize the industry is standardization.

“Engineers and architects are considered professionals, because everything they do is measured against standards,” he says. “But right now, clean is subjective. Most cleaning specifications are only frequency-based, but nobody has defined ‘clean’ objectively.”

That’s changing, though, because of new technology. Floor-slip testers can determine a floor’s coefficient of friction, and contractors can compare that to a baseline to prove that the floor was cleaned properly. Another element that will help is the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environment and Energy Design for Existing Buildings standard. This standard elevates cleaning from an afterthought to a necessary part of sustainable buildings.

With dedicated leaders and ground troops in the image war, visibility, certification and standardization should continue to increase. Perhaps, in time, the public’s picture of Carol Burnett will be replaced by that of an educated cleaning professional.

From the top down
Creating a professional organization starts with those most people already sees as professional - owners, executives and other leaders. Good managers lead by example, and instill pride in their workers and in their work.

“I’m a steward of my business,” says Todd Hopkins, CEO of Office Pride Inc. in Franklin, Ind. “I have a responsibility to ensure promises are kept. If I say we’re going to keep the facility clean, that’s a promise.”

Professional leaders also keep up with innovations and trends in their industry, much as a doctor or an engineer would.

“We have to be continuously learning, to stay on the edge of what’s new and what’s great,” Hopkins says.

“I think the professional contractors are very open to new ways of thinking, and open to products that are more efficient,” adds Steve Spencer of State Farm Insurance, Bloomington, Ill. For instance, many forward-thinking contractors have embraced microfiber, or at least made an open effort to explore and analyze the products before turning their attention elsewhere.

Building service contractors can get new information from a variety of sources, including peers, publications and associations, including Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) in Fairfax, Va.

“Most of BSCAI’s programs are designed to help CEOs achieve better education for themselves and better training for their workforce,” says the organization’s executive vice president Carol Dean. “It is BSCAI’s main reason for existence. BSCAI’s Certified Building Service Executive designation indicates to clients and potential clients that the CEO who has this designation is a professional building service contractor who regularly obtains education designed to help him or her do a better job for his or her … customers.”

Another potential source of executive education is employees.

“It works both ways — you train your employees, and you learn from your employees,” says Ron Goerne of 1-2-3 Training Systems in Bloomington, Ill. He recalls an incident from several years ago. His company had just started using backpack vacuums, and he thought all was going well until he observed an employee searching, futilely, for an outlet.

“His supervisor didn’t tell him where to plug it in,” Goerne says. “I didn’t even think of that.”

Because of the feedback from an employee, Goerne was able to identify a shortcoming in his training. The program now calls for a red dot on the ceiling grid near the outlet, so workers don’t have to bend down or crawl to find one.