Don’t Clean My Desk U will lose Something “Agian”-or- Respect Makes for Great Employees, Misspelled Notes Make for Write-Ups

The narrative swirling around hiring right now is front page news.  Business owners complaining people don’t want to work.  Employees complaining that employers suck.  Pundits pointing fingers.  However, if you are a commercial cleaning company owner, none of this is news to you.  Our struggles with hiring, as an industry, have been long and legendary.  Come ON, tell me you don’t have an “Oh-my-Golly-what-even-is-my-life” interview or new hire story…  I know you do.  

I’ll go first:  we had a new hire in her second week of work tell me that she didn’t clean toilets.  I didn’t bat an eye, just quipped, “You do if you want to work here” and continued training her on bathrooms.  Funny story though, turns out, if she had to clean toilets she in fact did not want to work here.  Whomp, whomp, whomp.

Way back in 2008, when we first opened our doors, the industry average length of employment for a commercial cleaner was a dismal 1.5 years.  We. Get. Burned. Out.  It’s a physical, demanding and often thankless job.  Realizing how many hours of training went into teaching people how to clean professionally, in addition to the hours of training required to meet the needs on each job site, we set about to tailor our company to combat that.  We had all worked for some terrible bosses in some terrible jobs.  We decided before we ever hired our first employee what kind of employer we would not be.  Which helped us decide on policies based on decency and respect.  

The policies we instituted were heresy at the time.  Along with a few full-time daytime workers, we planned to have a primarily part-time evening work force during the fall/winter, with expanded availability in the spring and summer months just perfect for high school and college kids.  We paid entry-level employees way over minimum wage.  In PA where we are based, the minimum wage was a laughable $7.25 per hour.  We started new hires at $8 for the probationary period, and outlined a clear path to $10 in the first six months.  Take the steps, earn the money.  Easy-peasy.  (These days with Pennsylvania’s still absurd $7.25 minimum, new hires start at $17, with the clear path to $20 FYI.)  

One of the most important things we do:  send an availability text – asking people what days they are available to work each and every week, before generating the schedule.  Because, as I explain to some seriously befuddled stares during the interview process, no job is more important than your life.  We all have things we need to do outside work.  Our schedule is such that we can accommodate a wide variety of availability.  Cleaning sites are like Legos – you just rearrange the pieces when the need arises.  Now obviously, flexibility within reason.  We do have a minimum number of days per week required.  At least one weekend day required; either Friday night or Saturday morning, preferably both.  And of course, any major upset in availability would need to be communicated in advance.  Don’t tell me you are going on vacation for two weeks the day before you leave.  Respect goes both ways.  

I would mention this policy in passing conversation to other business owners and they all looked at me like I was crazy.  

“HOW do you get anything done with all that scheduling uncertainty and chaos?” 

To me, I need to know that the job sites have the best staffing combination possible.  Working around my staff’s availability lets me assure the best service is provided.  Not knowing who was going to show up for a shift would be chaos in my mind.  

“You mean, you don’t generate a schedule and then make them find a replacement if they need time off??” 

Nope.  Who told you that your business needs are more important than your staff’s human needs?  Whoever it was, they lied to you.  

“You just let people take off work whenever they want?” 

I mean, yes.  Again, obviously within reason.  We have an attendance policy.  It’s just a policy that allows people to schedule around their lives.  People who are worried and distracted by unmet needs outside of work by definition cannot bring their best face to work.  People who feel respected, supported and trust that you value them as humans have the comfort to bring their whole effort to the job.  

Clear back in 2008 we referred to these policies as, “Just Simply The Right Way to Do Business”.  I’m so happy that others are now catching on and so sad that it took a frickin’ pandemic to force other employers’ hands.   

Because of this unique scheduling procedure and other respect-centric policies, our average worker lasts a whopping 4 ½ years.  Blowing the industry average of 1 ½ years right out of the water and allowing us to offer unprecedented continuity of service to our customers.  We have particular success with high school students in the summer between their junior and senior year.  Personally, I feel immense pride if they worked somewhere awful first – busing tables or at a certain discount chain or fast food joint.  “Come on over here kiddo.  We’ll pay you well, treat you well and offer health insurance if you need it.”  If after high school they chose to go to college close by, they stay usually until after their second or third year when they have to start working internships in their chosen fields.  If they go away to college, most come back to work seasonal summer sites and construction cleans.  In effect, expanding our workforce with experienced workers just when we need them.  

Along with various other types and ages of workers, we’ve employed two Biology majors, both heading into pre-Med.  We had a long-term student studying for his doctorate in History.  Multiple Engineering students.  Four Nursing students.  Three Financial Services majors.  Several seeking their MBA.  College students in particular are attracted to cleaning because they can pick up work around their college availability, work largely autonomously, and make way more than they could elsewhere.   

This arrangement is a win all around.  Not only for our employees, but also for us as the service provider and for our customers.  Once trained, they have the common sense and critical thinking ability to look at a job site list objectively and make decisions about how best to serve the customer within the time allotted, making us look like Rock Stars without constant supervision on my part.  Our customers benefit from having well-trained, highly-motivated, intelligent, conscientious staff members going above and beyond on the daily to provide excellent service with low turn-over.  

If this is the dire “chaos” other employers warned me about generated by asking folks for their availability, sign me up.  

This foundational culture of mutual respect and basic human decency, naturally, permeates how we craft relationships with our clients as well.  However, as my fellow BSCs and commercial cleaners will tell you, sometimes the big, honking stereotypes we run into as cleaners are hard to get around.   

We catch lots of blame we don’t deserve.  “My mug is missing!  Must have been the cleaners!” 

No Jennifer, it was actually your overnight dispatch guy and I know this because I saw him getting made fun of by a driver last night for sipping his coffee out of a teal Yeti with a Live, Laugh, Love sticker on it.  Thanks for the accusation though. 

However, this particular instance of misplaced cleaner blame was a great moment for demonstrating to my employees that I always have their backs while at the same time teaching our customers how to treat not just us, but future housekeeping staff as well.  Because after all,  we teach people what is acceptable behavior by the behavior we accept.  

Sometime after 8pm, well into their shift for the night, I received a text and then immediate phone call from a Cleaning Team Supervisor.  

CTS:  “I am so hot right now.  You better handle this guy, or I will.”

Me:  “I’m not following.  What happened?”

CTS:  “Go look at the text I just sent you.”

Me:  “What the hell?  Are you at ________?  We don’t even clean their desks”

CTS:  “Exactly.  This is the guy in back on the left with the giant pile of papers and mess on his desk.  Even if we did clean desks here, we wouldn’t clean his, it’s always a disaster.  I am not taking the blame for his lack of organizational skills.  He can’t even spell!  Did you see that note??!!  If he can’t find something, it’s because he’s a pig.  Not on me.  We only ever pull trash and vacuum in these offices.”

Me:  “Leave the note exactly where you found it.  That is not okay.  I’ll take care of it with his boss in the morning.”

I had a HOSTILE employee, feeling disrespected and unjustly blamed.  But the important thing to me in that moment was I had a COMFORTABLE employee.  He felt safe to explain to me how he was feeling.  He was passionate about defending the way he performed his work – for my company! Jackpot!  He felt safe to report a situation that another employer could have reprimanded him for.  This moment felt like an absolute WIN in my book.  I mean, at least from an employer-employee pov.  

I worked up a draft email to be sent in the morning with the picture.  Then I slept on it, edited in the morning, and sent it.  I was careful not to make assumptions about the motives that went into the note and not assign intent to my contact, who after all, did not leave the note and may not have known it was even there.  It went something like this:

“Hi _____, last night while cleaning one of our staff members found this note in ______’s office.  As a reminder – it’s okay to leave notes communicating small things to the cleaning staff occasionally, but please always include a quick email, text or phone call to me as well.  Sometimes, like in this case, I can head off any issues before our staff arrives onsite.  Our contract does not include wiping desks in your office by your request, so our staff never touches your desks.  We only collect trash and vacuum in his office.  When there are papers on the floor, which is often, we vac around them and never move them.  While not impossible, it’s unlikely we lost any of his papers.  

Also, we track customer requests so that we can head off issues before they escalate.   While we have a process for recording them, if you leave a note for the evening staff, I may or may not get notified by the team and would be unaware of any potential problems.  We don’t want little inconsistencies to turn into bigger problems down the road.  We can’t thank you enough for participating in the administration of your cleaning program.  Always feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns”   

Our contact called shortly thereafter.  Now it was her turn to be hostile, however, the hostility was not directed at me.  “He did WHAT!?”

Turns out our messy office dweller had a history of losing things, had been reprimanded for it previously, and he used our cleaners as scapegoats in a meeting earlier that week – and was immediately shot down for it.  He left the note to lash out at our staff, even after his boss had told him it was unlikely we were to blame and to clean up his mess of a desk.  He felt comfortable shifting blame to “the cleaner” because he had a not-so-respectful stereotypical image of what a cleaner is firmly planted in his mind.  Unfortunately for him, my pre-Med student CTS was having none of it.  My employee chafed under the weight of this unfair assessment of his character because he was secure in his self-worth AND he felt valued by me as his employer.

Our contact finished up the conversation by telling me she was going to his office when we hung up to move his trash can away from his desk.  According to her, she often witnessed papers sliding off the desk and onto the floor.  She was moving the can away from the desk so that nothing else could “accidentally” fall in it and if it continued to be an issue, he could take out his own dang trash. 

There was lots of anger and blame flying around.  But notably, none of it came from me.  It is important in these types of misunderstanding-prone situations that even when misplaced anger is directed toward you, your response should always be acceptance of the way someone is feeling and an earnest seeking to understand the drivers of behavior underneath the emotion.  Clearly our note writer was angry.  My employee was angry.  You can honor someone’s emotional response by accepting it without matching its energy.  It would have been easy to reflect those emotions back out when dealing with my contact, which would not have served our deeper purpose of doing business with respect.

(In case you’re wondering, no, Mr. Messy Desk Dweller did not last much longer. They were not a giant unkempt piles of paper kind of office. He was not a good fit.)

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