Working Well In the “Good Old Boy System” issss o-kaaay, Until it Isn’t. Part 1: The French Maid

So. Funny story (hint: my kids will tell you they’re almost never actually funny) while I’m going about my business cleaning urinals and whatnot these blog topics just *pop* right into my head. If I didn’t write them down, I would never remember them later.  Rather than stop and write them out in the moment, being up to my elbows in men’s rooms and all, I just dictate the thought in a note on my phone.  Just a couple words or phrases to remind me what it was that I wanted to write about when I come back later. Occasionally I also snap a picture.

Sometimes when I go back, I have no frickin’ clue what earlier me was even talking about. Take this blog title for instance. 

I was sitting at home on the couch after work and sorting through the items for my next day.  Chuckling to myself, I read some of the titles out loud to Mr. Hunt. I said, “I have no idea what incident caused me to write that, I really have to give myself a couple more words.”

He said, “Well, any number of things could fit that. You tell some doozies. Just go through and think of every situation where you’ve wanted to smack someone upside the head.”

And a blog post series was born!

But first, some background.  I often equate my work as a commercial cleaner to directing a symphony.


The orchestration of a site list can be magical. Three to five workers, moving in concert through a job site. Weaving in and out of the customers doing their own work, each completing a piece that cascades into the completion of the work using the least amount of steps, least amount of effort, least amount of time, without getting in each other’s way.  No one person ever waits on another, from back to front, working toward the exit, top to bottom, cleanest to dirtiest — magnificent!

Clearly I have always taken janitorial facility maintenance entirely too seriously, even before Covid tried to kill everyone and cleaning all of the sudden became really very important.  In The Before Times, before the pandemic, it was satisfying to put these pieces together and create cleanliness and order from dirt and neglect.  Because as you, my dear Building Contractor Friends, already know the work is always the same, but never the same, all at once. It’s challenging!

On this particular day I was on site not as a Team Member, but as the owner. It was a daytime clean, with workers present. Always a touch nerve wracking. We have found that if a site normally takes an hour to clean in the evening it can take more like an hour and a half to clean during the day.  No, not because we do more when people are watching.  No, not because we do less when no one is watching either.  This sounds awful, but it’s because we are nice of all things.  

Being polite, speaking to each person as you approach their workspace to empty their trash, all these tiny pleasant interactions add up.  This one tells you about their grandson, “Look at this picture!  Ohmygosh, he’s getting so big!”  This one talks about their greenhouse.  “Do you want to take home some cucumbers?  Here let me get you a bag.”  There is a careful dance each worker must partake in.  Stay long enough to not seem rude, move along fast enough to meet our time restriction and keep up with the other team members.  Learn enough about your customers to connect with them and develop a relationship, but keep moving.  

The conductor analogy applies not just to the individual job sites, but also to the way the schedule is put together.  How many workers on each crew for each shift.  Where each job site is located to minimize travel time and mileage.  How long it takes to complete each one in conjunction with any time restrictions for the next place.  If we are allotted two hours on your site and it takes three and a half, the timing of the next places gets wonky.  Sometimes the order has to be shuffled depending upon what unholy messes we had to fix.  It is a constant dance to music that only plays in your mind.  I mean, that’s what it’s like for me anyway.  You?  No?

This day, I was the driver for the shift, touching base with management and just generally conducting while the team members completed the work.  We had a newer girl with us.  She was shy and unsure of herself but a fabulous worker.  She felt better when I came along to this particular place.  She had been on this site 3 days a week for the better part of two months.  Her challenge was not being able to keep walking while someone was talking — and she was cute — on a production floor full of guys  ¡Ay, caramba!  She said it felt like running a gauntlet.  She didn’t want to be rude but didn’t know how to escape the stories she felt as though she had to stop and listen to at each and every workstation.  

I will admit, it can be tough to be a female commercial cleaning company owner working primarily in industrial facilities.  Don’t get me wrong, there are PLENTY of badass women doing this work.  There was just a strange work culture shift for these Good Old Boys not too long ago.  It used to be that they had a Maintenance Department, usually with a staff of 3-5 workers, that handled everything from snow removal to landscaping to floor care to general housekeeping.  Changing light bulbs, replacing toilet paper and unclogging drains all while rocking fabulous Dickies navy blue coveralls and looking in command with that big ass key ring on their hip.  These guys have forgotten more VCT floor care knowledge than I have acquired in the last 15 years.   Sadly, the Maintenance Man of old has aged out, or worse been downsized.  Their staff has been laid off and their responsibilities consolidated into only loosely related departments.  When the doors opened to vendors to complete the landscaping, snow removal and janitorial services, the women poured right through those open doors.  

What the women didn’t realize was there was already an image of who they were and how they should be treated waiting for them inside.  Sometimes — certainly not always — but sometimes, the Production Manager seeking to hire us has the Carol Burnett version of a cleaning lady image planted firmly in his mind.  You have to prove yourself, while at the same time fitting into the wildly varied workings of each department. Some folks think of the cleaning work as unskilled or worse, easy.  Anyone can clean, right?  How hard could it be? 

“One of the guys had his sister and her cousin come in to clean for awhile, we just left them $20 under my keyboard, that what you want us to do?”  

The heck?  “Umm no.  Here’s my bid, it’s certainly more than $20/visit and we’ll email your monthly invoice to your AP Department.  We prefer ACH deposits.”  

The Production Manager on this site was decidedly not that guy.  He was professional.  He treated us like professionals.  He was on top of his production floor.  He watched the symphony of his floor the same way I watched my workers.   Even while talking to someone else, both our eyes, always on the work. Scanning for problems, watching processes and ways to help ease the flow.  We had been standing on the platform outside his office when his name was called from another section.  He walked off and I went through his office briefly to check work.  When I returned to the platform, I looked directly at our new girl and froze.  Surrounded by 3 workers, her face was plastered with shock? Surprise?  Uncertainty?  I called her name and strode down the steps.  She looked up at me relieved and started walking with her eyebrows up in disbelief.  

“What happened?”  I didn’t have to ask if something had happened.

“Umm, well.  Our next day here is Halloween.  One of the guys by the paint booth just asked if we would be wearing French Maid costumes to work.  They all started laughing and I had no idea what to say.”

“Go help finish bathrooms.  I’ll finish your work.”  Her shoulders relaxed and she scuttled off.  

My eyes locked on the worker. He froze.  In my peripheral vision I saw someone race-walking toward the last known whereabouts of the Production Manager.  

Ah, the dreaded French Maid Pin up.  The absolute worst stereotype we — ridiculously — still have to fight.  I am here to strip and wax your floors/pull your trash/clean your bathroom.  No, I will not be doing it in a lacy mini skirt so you can peek up it.  

I get it.  There is a certain amount of joking and lighthearted inappropriateness in every warehouse, plant, shop, etc.  Personally, I like Good Old Boys.  And if he had said it to me?  I would not have been offended at all and probably would have responded along the lines of “Only if you’ll dress up as a clown, Clown” and continued on my way.  But it wasn’t me and he scared her.  That’s not cool.  

“Boss, you better hurry up, The Cleaning Lady is going to kill Larry” I heard over my shoulder as I walked slowly toward her trash bin.  

Before I could get there, in swooped the Production Manager.  “I got this.  No offense.” he said with a wink.  “Larry, take that trash cart, pull the rest of the trash from this section.  Then come see me.”  Turning he said quietly, “I heard, I’m sorry.  It won’t happen again.  He wants to treat your worker like a ‘girl’ then he can show some chivalry and finish her job today.”

I may consider myself a conductor, but he was the Maestro.  His finger so attuned to the pulse of his floor it wasn’t 30 seconds before he was on it.  He had my back as much as I had hers.  And I didn’t even have to smack anyone upside the head.  

*THIS* is how the time you invest in vendor/customer relationships pays off.  As a commercial cleaning company owner, I didn’t have to be in the field that day.  I could have always just sent a crew and not spent the time developing the relationship.  I learned so much about the nuance of this job from this man.  You don’t have to like some of the conditions you find yourself in, but you do have to figure out how to be productive in them.  I’m not so sure you can do that effectively if you are only a voice on the other end of the phone.  Face-to-face time matters.

In the same way, the trust you generate by standing up for your workers in the moment rewards you in a million ways. Would I have known what my worker needed from me if I hadn’t been there?  If I had just heard about the incident after?  Would I have even heard about it?  I’m not sure she would have spoken up.  

In the end, a few weeks later, we decided the new girl wasn’t a good fit for this site, much to her relief. Not because of this episode.  She really much preferred working in empty buildings after hours.  And Larry?  He’s still a little bit scared of me, and that’s probably okay.  Good Old Boys need to know the boundaries.  

What about you?  Any other Mrs. Cleaning Ladies out there with Good Old Boy stories?  We’d love to hear from you.

These events took place before we had developed our FM/BSC Workforce Management App, Virtuosity. Now it’s even easier to record job site notes, instant message and send incident reports right from your smartphone. Available to the public for the first time now.  Go ahead. Demonstrate your great technical skill and make everything you work so hard to do look oh so easy. 

© Mrs. Hunt and What Your Cleaning Lady Knows, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mrs. Hunt and What Your Cleaning Lady Knows with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.