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Want to KEEP Cleaning Workers? Start Here.

When you were a small kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A race car driver? A doctor? A park ranger? 

Did you have hopes of joining the millions of people in the professional cleaning industry?

Probably not.

Heck, ask most people in the cleaning industry how they ended up in it, and most will say they fell into it. They answered a job ad, took a second job to pay for a big expense or offered to help out a friend for a weekend.  

Current figures suggest approximately 2.5 million people work as cleaners in the U.S., and that’s probably a conservative estimate. But a lot of the people who begin working in the industry quit shortly after they start. 

This happens for a lot of reasons—reasons you already know. 

It’s hard work. 

It doesn’t pay much. 

It gets little respect. 

Another thing we know? We’d be totally screwed without cleaning workers. Cleaning is essential for any high-performing organization—and society. 

And right now, we’re experiencing a big issue of attracting and retaining talent. In Facility Cleaning Decision’s 2018 Reader Survey, staffing challenges were one of respondents’ top areas of concerns.

Historically low unemployment rates and stricter immigration policies are causing employers to look for alternative solutions, such as reducing frequencies and cross-training employees to cover labor shortages.

Changing Perceptions: It’s More than Just Dirty Work

Cleaning workers are an essential part of an organization. We know that, but in order to change the perceptions cleaning workers have of the work they do requires involvement from others within the organization.

A recent study looked at the social interactions of hospital cleaners and how those interactions impacted their perceived self worth. It looked at what researchers called “valuing acts” that cleaners experienced throughout the day and how those experiences made them feel. 

Researchers stated, “A hospital’s effectiveness depends on the work of the cleaning staff…Those who clean hospitals ensure a safe and sanitary environment for the execution of routine and complicated medical procedures.” (p. 14)

So while the researchers recognized contribution of cleaners, they found their critical role wasn’t recognized by other people in the hospital.

Here’s what they found:

  • Many cleaners recognize the importance of their work and take “great pride” in it. 
  • Their self worth is tied to social encounters they experience on the job — encounters with other people in the building, such as patients, nurses and doctors. 
  • Simple acts, like a doctor or nurse getting out of the way when the cleaner is pushing a cart through the hallway or acknowledging their presence with a simple nod contributes to a cleaning worker feeling valued.
  • On the opposite side, acts like not cleaning up after themselves (e.g. not picking up paper that has fallen beside the waste basket or a spill for which they’re responsible) along with not involving them in a hospital wide event may contribute to the cleaners feeling unappreciated.

Ultimately, seemingly small gestures can leave a big impact on cleaning workers and can help them feel more valued—or devalued—within an organization.

How can we KEEP more cleaning workers?

Few people grow up wanting to be in the cleaning industry. The goal is to KEEP them in our industry once they get here. 

How can you do this? Try following the KEEP acronym:

Keep employees at the forefront. Take the time to talk to your staff members and get to know them. Listen to them and learn the names of people in their families. Ask them questions and show you’re interested in them as a person, not just as a work. 

Explain the importance of what they do. Help them understand the importance of their role. Make sure they know that cleaning isn’t just about helping a building look nice, but it’s about keeping people in that building stay healthy and safe too.

Empower them with training and advancement opportunities. Cleaning workers are one of the best customer service tools in your building. Empower them with training so they understand how to interact with others in the building and strategies to do their jobs better so they can be promoted and grow within their career. 

Preach their importance to other people in the building. In a hospital, that might be doctors and nurses, in a school, that could be students and teachers. The key is that other people in the facility have a greater appreciation for how cleaning workers help them. 

Studies routinely show that more engaged workers are higher performing. Showing workers that you truly value them will help KEEP them on your team in a competitive job market. 

Check it out!

The short film “Keepers of the House” aims to highlight the importance cleaning workers. Developed to educate others in a hospital about the vital role housekeeping/custodial workers play in developing an environment of care, the film will be used as a learning tool to help create better, stronger businesses.

How the University of Michigan Makes Sure Custodial Workers Are Seen — and Appreciated

It started with a random Google search. Now it’s a growing program that unites building occupants with the people who clean their buildings, giving them an opportunity to connect and get to know one another. And most importantly, it gives the people who work in that building an opportunity to say “thank you” to their custodians.

Three years ago, when John Lawter, Director of Custodial Grounds and Services at the University of Michigan, began looking for ways to recognize his team, his Google searches led him to Custodial Appreciation Day, which is held annually in early October. 

“I never knew something like this existed,” he said. “I knew it could be a great way to say thank you to the people on our team.”

This team was presented with U of M scarves for chilly Ann Arbor winters.

Like many custodial teams, Lawter’s team works mostly at night when students, faculty and staff are out of the office. Very rarely do the building customers have an opportunity to see the hard-working people who clean their building, let alone meet them. So Lawter and his team decided to dedicate the entire month of October to the custodial staff at U of M. 

The key difference to this program compared to other Custodial Appreciation events? He encouraged their customers, the people in the buildings on campus, to develop their own recognition events—it wasn’t just an event coordinated and attended by custodial department.

“It’s been pretty amazing to see the response to this program,” he said. “Each year, more buildings organize and find some way to recognize the cleaners in the building.”

Last year, 27 buildings on the U of M campus hosted their own events to recognize custodial workers. Lawter says that the more the word spreads about Custodial Appreciation Month, the more buildings participate. 

These events might include a pizza party, a potluck or a short ceremony where staff are given school swag, including sweatshirts or other apparel. Lawter makes it a point to attend each event, so the team recognizes how valued they are within the custodial department too. Several deans at the schools within the University have also been known to make an appearance. 

Branded apparel, like these long sleeved shirts from the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute, are a great way to say “thank you” to your custodial team.

“When you attend these events, it’s always wonderful to see the response from the people on our team,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the recognition from the people in the buildings where they work has a big impact on them.”

In addition to boosting morale and making cleaners feel appreciated, Lawter says that the events also help improve communication and relationships with the building occupants. 

As the program evolves, Lawter and his team is working with other groups on campus to grow awareness and resources for recognition to encourage all buildings to participate. But no cleaner goes without a party or some token of recognition in October. Lawter make sure of that.

“We’ll have a pizza party for the team when their building doesn’t host an appreciation event,” he said. “But the longer we do this, the fewer events we host internally. The entire campus community really appreciates the work of our custodial team and does a great job of showing it.”