It’s a career dream rarely realized. An unskilled, but bright, worker starts out mopping floors, and after just six months is asked to supervise his peers. A few years later, he’s running the housekeeping or environmental services department. And soon, he’s handling a host of services for his organization.

Of course, the reality in the cleaning industry is that this won’t always happen for a number of reasons. Most prominently, high turnover rates provide a constant churn of low-skilled workers who don’t stick around long enough to make it to the next level. Another problem is the temptation to move on to other departments within an organization as a way to move up the career ladder.

So how do you clean up your department image enough in order to attract long-term employees — and, once you’ve hired them, encourage them to stay with you for the next decade?
With this in mind, many housekeeping managers currently are on a quest to better cater to their cleaning workers’ needs and offer a variety of suggestions for what seems to be working best.

Show me the money
Pay is unarguably one reason why employees stay put — and leave.

“If I can’t put gym shoes on my kid’s feet, I’m going to go somewhere else where I can get a buck more an hour,” says David Frank, president of KnowledgeWorx, a consulting firm in Englewood, Colo., explaining the mentality of many workers.

In Washington, D.C. janitorial workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (Council 26), who clean legislative offices on Capitol Hill are paid between $12 and $13 an hour and very few have left their jobs in the last 20 to 30 years, says Don Maddrey, labor representative for Council 626. But, in April of 2001, a class-action suit filed against the union argued that women were not paid the same levels as men in the same jobs. A ruling in that case now guarantees women the same wages as men.

While Maddrey feels there’s no doubt that pay is what keeps employees from cruising the employment classifieds, another factor is stability. A generous federal employee benefits package, including health and retirement, far exceeds what a private sector employer might offer, he says.

Also, the fact that cleaning workers in Congress are public employees and clean prestigious facilities is one reason cleaning workers there are willing to stay at their jobs for so long, says Carl Goldman, executive director of AFSCME Council 26.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me...
“The universal issue is that they want to be treated with respect,” says Mike Chodrow, corporate director of environmental services/laundry at New York Presbyterian. He manages 800 cleaning employees at three work sites — Columbia Presbyterian, Children’s Hospital and New York Weill Cornell Medical Center.

In fact, some of the housekeeping directors interviewed for say they encourage employees to look at a janitorial job as an entry-level position within a large, successful corporation and take pride in being a part of the overall operations, not just cleaning.

Thomas DeVoe, facilities manager with the state of Ohio’s department of administrative services, is adamant about calling janitors entry-level state government workers because it reminds them of how important their work is.

To further hammer home the point that cleaners have an important task, DeVoe pushes his staff to create a lasting first impression on every customer who walks into the two state buildings they maintain.

“They are the front-line people that are out there providing the service for our tenants. Their job reflects on us as building managers for the state of Ohio,” DeVoe says. He also makes sure they are aware of what will happen if their customers are not satisfied: “If we lose tenants, they lose work,” he says.

Similarly, janitors might work better when given ownership of their work day and environment, and when given the opportunity to contribute in decision-making.

At Nassau University Medical Center, managers asked the cleaning employees what they wanted to wear before deciding on a department uniform. Decisions about color, size and style were made in meetings between the buyers and the employees.

Thinking that overall, aesthetics might even help increase his employee’s success, Dennis Oehl ripped down the environmental services department’s existing wallpaper, repainted the walls, hung new curtains, and renamed the department Hospitality Services when he took over the department recently.

And the cleaner your current staff can keep their facilities the more appealing the department will be for prospective employees, says Frank.

“The center of the plate is clean buildings,” he says “If you have a dirty building you may not even attract new workers.”

Roll with the punches
Rather than fight the natural tendency of employees to move up through the cleaning department into other jobs within an organization, many managers chose to embrace the career path as a benefit of their institution they can use to recruit new employees. At Sodexho Marriott, janitors are encouraged to grab a hold of their careers and take advantage of company training programs.

“We’re a company that can grow laterally into other [hospitality] services. It’s not unusual for our employees to manage other areas,” says Gary Herald, senior vice president of Sodexho Marriott’s corporate services division. In Herald’s division are 60 housekeeping managers and 150 housekeeping supervisors.

DeVoe frequently posts higher-level jobs in the janitors’ work area, and encourages employees to apply to higher level jobs within or outside of the department when they are ready to move on. But while they’re with him, he makes sure they are equipped with the proper equipment, tools, and training.

It may sound basic, but employees want: tools that do the job well. They want a mop that swivels nicely, and enough cleaning chemicals to last through their shift, says Frank.

“Cleaning employees are like carpenters, who have saws, hammers and power tools. If cleaners don’t have the right tools, it makes their job hard and they’re more likely to move on to something easier,” he says.

At the Nassau medical center, cleaning employees were given more automatic equipment to use, and more cleaning is done at night now than during the day, allowing fewer customer interruptions and cleaner buildings.

Who’s the boss?
Employees also need to feel comfortable voicing their opinions and talking with supervisors.

New York Presbyterian’s Chodrow says he tries hard to maintain that environment with a flat management structure, with an employee, supervisor, manager and director.

“You need to have custodial supervisors who treat everybody with respect,” says DeVoe.

Frank thinks the biggest challenge in creating that environment is when supervisors are former cleaning employees and don’t respect them as much when promoted.

“A lot of employees look at a supervisor as a temporary $2-an -hour-or-more cleaning worker,” he says.

Another problem is inconsiderate supervisors.

“Everything starts at the top,” says Frank. “If you have a manager who uses his department in a negative way, something negative will happen in return.”

He advises managers to take extra time when explaining to a supervisor what his or her role is. Otherwise, there will be high turnover among these managers, and possibly employees who learn to disrespect them.

Some housekeeping departments have made a clean sweep of their old managerial structure in order to better address worker needs. Dennis Oehl and his consulting company Preferred Support Management was brought in to overhaul the environmental services department of Nassau University Medical Center this year. Part of the move involves an extensive human resources shift to educate department supervisors and managers so that when he’s gone the department still will have a strong focus on employees and quality services.

“We’re going to empower some of these workers to be hands-on,” says Oehl. “We’ve created an atmosphere of hope for the workers. We’re going to create some synergy with local universities, and get them out to get some education.”

Nassau even plans to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on a dinner/dance for the entire cleaning department this December. At the dance, certificates will be awarded and key employees recognized.

“People can walk in and get recognized for their hard work,” says Oehl, adding that he plans to offer in-house certifications that employees can take with them to another job.

Managers need to remember that whether or not their janitorial staff is committed to the job for the next decade is not the most important thing to focus on. Instead, they should think about making the job fun and interesting, and continuously come up with new ways to stimulate individual employees.

Kristine Hansen, a Madison, Wis.-based writer, frequently covers the cleaning industry for various business publications.

Medical Facility Tip
• Flexible work schedules

Just because a health-care facility operates around the clock, doesn’t mean the janitors have to. That’s the message environmental services director Alvin Kohlman is passing on to his cleaning staff at Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Madison, Wis. Just three of the 51 custodians clean the 400-bed, 550,000-square-foot facility at night. The rest clean during the day so they won’t disturb the severely disabled residents’ sleeping patterns. It’s a selling point to potential employees, who usually prefer working days.

Most of his staff have remained in their jobs for at least 20 years. The housekeeping supervisor, who used to head up the local union, has worked at the facility for 34 years.

By working during the day, custodians were more flexible about their responsibilities. So, Kohlman worked with each person individually to develop a “work practice,” which dictates where and at what time to start a cleaning task. “If something’s wrong with a certain area of the building, we can track down the employee responsible. When the other side is perfect, we know who to give the praise to,” says Kohlman.

Useful Resource
• Newsletter offers tons of tips

L.R. Schwartz understands how tough it is to find innovative ways to stimulate your staff, so she publishes the Employee Retention Strategies newsletter in the hopes of spreading others’ good ideas to managers in need of some creative options. From tips on training to the psychology of today’s work force, this publication can offer great insight into making cleaning workers in all markets happier to stick around and provide quality services. For more information on the bimonthly publication, call 602-493-0585.

Education Facility Tip
• Cross-training top talent

Cream-of-the-crop janitors at San Diego State University can be reassigned to a 3- to 6-month training program in another job discipline, something completely different from housekeeping.

“While there, they can gain experience in fields that will benefit them both monetarily and provide some upward mobility,” says Benita Mann, manager of the university’s custodial/maintenance services for physical plant and housing residential life. The idea for the program came two years ago from the directors of the physical plant department. After the 3- to 6-month period, a “temporary” employee is encouraged to apply and interview for a permanent job opening.

Other retention strategies include full benefits package even for part-time workers, and a mentoring program.

Currently there are 26 year-round custodians in Mann’s division, with an additional 30 to 40 during the summer months, cleaning residence halls, apartment complexes, and public areas on campus.