It’s easy to become jaded in this industry. Sometimes it seems that one of our biggest obstacles to overcome is the notion that janitorial work is a crucial profession that demands respect.

My father taught me a very important lesson when I first came into the professional cleaning industry. He said, the difference between a ruin and a building in use is the janitor.

Janitorial work affects every building, every day, regardless of anything else that happens in a particular facility. I firmly believe that janitors are not simply the folks who empty the trash and mop the floors, but they are healthcare workers tasked to maintain a healthy environment for all building occupants.

I recently caught an old episode of Scrubs where the doctor/protagonist, JD, has a long-standing battle of wits with the janitor, aptly named “Janitor.” The episode contained a scene where JD loses his composure and berates Janitor, telling him that at least his job as doctor made a difference in the world — and all Janitor did was mop the same spot over and over every day.

Perhaps it’s because it was 3:00 a.m. and I was feeling tired, but that scene just about did me in. It was not only upsetting for me as my life’s work revolves around advancing the cleaning profession, but it is also frustrating that this message is reiterated, repeatedly, in popular culture, and we as an industry seem to quietly go about our business.

There are several reasons for this, many of which are much too intricate to tackle in this column. We can, however, eat the elephant one bit at a time. It is our duty to make sure the rest of the world treats cleaning workers as first-class citizens, which means going beyond patting backs and saying “job well done.” While most appreciate the praise and positive feedback, it is important to create a positive custodial message that goes beyond words. For example:

Cleaning workers are healthcare workers. First and foremost, cleaning workers are wholly responsible for removing the unwanted material in a facility. Unwanted material not only means visible dirt and debris, it also means pathogens, allergens and lung-damaging particles. Make sure the other building occupants understand that you’re disinfecting restrooms, vacuuming up the small stuff, and removing their trash and their waste all on a daily basis.

Cleaning workers are not personal attendants. It never ceases to amaze me how building occupants perceive the cleaning function in a building. I have had several experiences around the country where a building occupant dropped a corn chip beneath their desk — and away from even the most open view — as a test of the cleaning function. It typically sits for a week before they complain to the cleaning staff. It is the case in most of these incidents that the building occupant has simply missed the internal memo that, apart from trash, they are expected to maintain personal areas since they spend more time there than any individual cleaning worker.

Cleaning workers are human beings and deserve respect. The world needs to stop treating the cleaning worker as if they’re invisible. Cleaning workers know more about the building than just about anyone else. They hear conversations, they know almost everyone’s schedule, and they often times can spot security and maintenance issues before anyone else.

Cleaning workers serve one of the most important functions in daily building operations. Let’s do our part to make sure the rest of the world understands this fact. 
Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.