As a housekeeping manager, ever wonder if you reflect the industry norm when it comes to responsibility, pecking order within the organization or job title?

Depending on the organization and facility type and size, cleaning managers hold a variety of titles. Responsibilities, too, vary. Similarly, some managers boast a strong academic background, while others have a more technical or trade background. Some managers are new to the cleaning profession and some have years of experience. Male? Female? Certainly more men today than 20 years ago. More than likely, though, certain facility types are more gender-specific than others.

Housekeeping Solutions asked industry leaders, experts and readers what kind of professional composite they would come up with based on their experiences. First of all, we found that “manager” tends to be an overused tag in housekeeping.

“Define manager,” says John Walker, president of Managemen, Salt Lake City. “It could be anyone from a way-high boss to a head janitor with three workers.”

Beth B. Risinger, CEO/executive director for the International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA), sees an assortment of cleaning managers among IEHA membership.

“The facility services manager, director of environmental services, or director of housekeeping — or whatever the title — of today can be seen wearing professional business attire, having excellent management and people skills, maintaining their educational knowledge through seminars, conventions, and testing processes; and, commanding excellent salaries and benefits,” she says.

How did they get here?
A variety of paths have led housekeeping professionals to their current positions. For some, this path was a direct line; for others, the route was more circuitous.

“Very few people think of being a custodian or cleaning as a goal in life,” says Raymond A. Francis, custodial manager, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It’s not considered a really nice job, so it’s not on a high-priority list of careers for most people, but some people end up doing it well and even like it.”

Francis has been a custodial manager at UW-Eau Claire for 20 years. He worked as a part-time cleaner for a building service contractor while he was in the U.S. Navy in the 1970s. He left the Navy and got a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1983. After graduation, he worked at Menard’s for a short time before applying to UW-Eau Claire for his current position.

Bob Carr began his current job — custodial coordinator, Edmonds School District (Lynnwood, Wash.) — after 22 years in the Navy where he spent time cleaning or supervising sailors in cleaning ships, planes, hangars, barracks and bases.
“I was able to convince the school district that coming up through the ranks in the military to Navy chief petty officer to lieutenant gave me the experience required in a cleaning manager,” Carr says. He completed his bachelor’s degree in business management during his 5.5 years in the job.

Experience as a law enforcement officer gave Gary Symons, safety and environmental services manager, Kaiser Permanente Hospitals, Orange County, Calif., the skills to manage staff. “I learned ‘command presence,’ which means present authority and people will listen,” he says.

Symons, who has worked in environmental services since 1996, has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) and a certificate in occupational health and safety.

Janelle Everett, currently a housekeeping supervisor, started a cleaning business in 1990 after her husband left her with three children. “Living in a small town, you have to be service-oriented,” she says. “I got the word out at church [about the business], got business cards and a vacuum cleaner, and in two weeks I had nine houses.” After 10 years, the physical plant director at Presbyterian College, Clinton, S.C., approached Everett, whose business had grown enough to employ 10 workers, with a job offer. (Everett has a bachelor’s degree in Christian education.)

Education vs. hands-on skills
A person with a combination of a college background and extensive experience in management and cleaning might be an attractive candidate to most employers. But not all housekeeping managers have degrees in management or found management training, let alone in combination with cleaning experience. Whether or not one or the other is more important depends on the organization.

Some organizations require at least some college education, like St. Ann’s Mercy Hospital, Toledo, Ohio. Julie Kanthak, an environmental services manager at one of the hospital’s campuses, has been cleaning in the health-care environment for 30 years. “I started when I was 18 years old and got real comfortable in the position,” she says. “I got on-the-job training, some college experience, and was promoted through the ranks.”

“My degree [in business administration] helped open doors when I applied for supervisor jobs and for manager jobs,” says Tom Parrish, custodial manager, Washington State University, Pullman, Wash. “But you can gain an awful lot of knowledge through on-the-job experience. There are people who went through the school of hard knocks who know how to deal with people better than I do.”

Someone with a master’s degree and no cleaning experience might not be the best person to train workers on how to clean or to give direction to front-line cleaning workers. “The last thing you need is someone who sits behind a desk,” says Barry Meyer, manager of housing services, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. “You need someone who has been out in the field and has done the work. That’s very critical.” For example, he used to work at a hotel where he once had to jump in and help one of his housekeepers clean 36 rooms when he was understaffed.

Meyer, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a MBA, says he “doesn’t fall in the mold” because most people who work in housekeeping management for the university do not have college degrees. He says that he thinks degrees often aren’t required of housekeeping managers because people, in general, view the job as easy — but it is much more difficult than many people realize.

In addition to cleaning knowledge, housekeeping managers, like most of their management peers, need to be common-sense grounded. Also, strong communication skills are essential.

“Being a custodial manager is about managing people. About 90 percent of your budget is labor,” Parrish says. “The rest — buying products, managing a budget and so on — is just common sense.”

Cleaning managers often deal with higher turnover and employee absenteeism than other departments. Written and verbal communication skills are necessary for putting written policies and procedures into place and making sure they are followed. Communication skills are necessary not only for managing employees, but for interacting with customers and bosses. Basic computer skills and knowledge of spreadsheet programs also help in managing department inventory, quality control and other data.

Facility roles and perceptions
Whether or not a housekeeping manager has the people skills to interact with building occupants, superiors and organization executives determine how the housekeeping manager and his or her employees are perceived. It doesn’t hurt to also be conversant in a broad range of facilities management topics.

“We believe that [cleaning managers] are receiving much more respect for the position today than they were 10 years ago,” Risinger says. “They are involved with construction projects and many are on strategic planning committees within their facilities. Many work closely with infection-control nurses. Others are involved in the landscaping, laundry-linen, dietary, engineering, and waste-management areas.”

Although cleaning managers are becoming a more influential part of the facilities management team, they still usually have many bosses above them. A housekeeping manager might work under an assistant director of facilities, a director of facilities, a physical plant director, and a vice president of operations.

Pecking order and perception still tend to haunt many in the cleaning industry, however. “They are living below a glass ceiling they will never penetrate,” Walker says, adding that cleaning managers often feel disconnected to their organizations. They are dealing with physical plant directors and facilities managers who know how to do business — they understand projects and construction, renovations, security, transportation and grounds, he says.

“Custodial managers try very hard and they are frustrated because they don’t know how to play the game,” Walker says. “They retire tired and frustrated because they don’t know how to change things in their organizations.”

There are endless theories regarding what fuels housekeeping stereotypes, or impedes upward mobility among cleaning professionals.

“Everyone knows how to clean,” says Bruce Boggan, director of engineering, Valley Regional Medical Center, Brownsville, Texas. “It’s not like engineering. No one can come down here and tell me how to repair a chiller. No one is going to tell the materials manager how to run the warehouse, but you can ask for your area to be cleaned better. Housekeeping loses that little bit of aura or mystique.”

Others contend that most cleaning managers fail to articulate the critical nature of the cleaning mission. Many observers feel that if building occupants and other departments understood the housekeeping mission better, they might respect it more. In other words, housekeeping managers could use a little public-relations mentoring.

“You need to let people know what it is, how challenging it is, the importance of the position and what’s involved,” Meyer says. “You need to raise the image as a job, a discipline, as a career — so people don’t think it’s beneath them.”

It’s what’s inside that counts
“If you get beat up all the time, pretty soon it hurts your self-esteem,” Boggan says. “Soon you develop a shell, throw up barriers and become callous to people’s complaints.”

Housekeeping managers receive criticism from all areas of organizations. Regardless, they still take a lot of pride in their work.

“[Housekeeping managers] generally have warm and caring personalities, and care deeply about the cleaning industry,” Risinger says. “They believe in what they do.”

Similarly, the growing importance of housekeeping within the facilities management scheme of things has helped elevate it as a profession in recent years. Today, housekeeping boasts a greater diversity of professional backgrounds, represents — on average — a better-trained and educated practitioner, and the mission itself is more critical to facilities and parent organizations.

Cleaning managers continue to work hard and strive to elevate the housekeeping profession. “There is a hunger out there to do something to change the profession,” Walker says. “There is a desire to match the custodial department up with other departments.”