Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Custodial Issues

Expectations, Staff, and Standards

school custodial issues


It sure could be a lot easier if we could all hire our own cleaning contractors. Easier because if standards and expectations are not met, the cleaning contractor will be pressured to improve the service or the contractor’s contract will just not be renewed.

But that is not always the case. Many schools and other organizations hire their own cleaning workers. So, what do we do if cleaning is not satisfactory or meeting expectations?

It’s much harder to hire and fire in in-house situations. And, very often, it simply is not necessary. What can work much better is to find out why problems exist and how they can be corrected. And the first place to start is with the custodial workers themselves.

My Walt Disney Story

Several years ago, I was hired by the Walt Disney Company in California. The property had more than 750,000 square feet of space that had to be cleaned on a daily or regular basis. At that time, 92 in-house custodial workers were employed by the company; 11 utility workers (workers called in to handle things such as setting up tables and chairs for meetings, some grounds keeping, light bulb maintenance, moving and storing furniture, and so on); plus we had four day porters.

The reason Disney hired me was that, for the most part, they were just not happy with the service being provided by this 100-plus crew. There were regular complaints from department heads. Also, there was a very significant dollars-and-cents issue. The annual budget for cleaning typically ran out about mid-year. This meant that either the Disney company was not budgeting enough money for cleaning and janitorial supplies or spending had simply gotten out of control.

My first jobs were to tour the entire property and to meet the cleaning workers. In the process, I investigated such things as how well they interacted with each other, as well as the building heads and users. How well did they work together as a team? How much did they like their jobs?

Here is what I found:

  • Very low morale and a lot of blame toward each other for the cleaning problems at the company;
  • ongoing conflicts between cleaning workers and supervisors;
  • clashes between different ethnic groups;
  • difficulties between long-term custodial workers, who were more self-starting and well organized, and workers recently hired who were less so; and
  • a general lack of respect for each other and the staff at Disney.

Plus, there was a new problem when I arrived: me. Many custodial workers felt uncomfortable that an outsider had been brought in to help turn things around.

All of these issues contributed to the cleaning dissatisfaction the Disney company was experiencing. Each of these issues, even low morale, take energy… energy that could best be put to use cleaning. It’s hard to do your best for a company when so much tension and discomfort exist.

Addressing these problems might seem insurmountable, but I found a very useful way to quickly and easily address them: I placed a box in the lunchroom.

Every Thursday, a box would be placed in the custodial lunchroom. All custodial workers were encouraged to jot down their comments, complaints, and work-related issues. I would read each of them and the issues discussed would be addressed.

Initially, the box was full of comments every Thursday, but within about three months, there were so few, we no longer needed the box. The box had done its job. It served as a symbol of change. Not only did it open up the channels of communication between the staff, supervisors, and the department heads, but it also helped build respect between the custodial workers and lifted their opinion of me and the reasons I was brought in.

This “box” strategy can be used anywhere including public and private schools. When problems exist on a continual basis among large numbers of, if not the entire, custodial team the box helps administrators find out what is really behind the problem, analyze the situation, and address it.

Dollars and Cents

Earlier, we mentioned that along with cleaning dissatisfaction, the annual budget for cleaning typically ran out about six months into the year. This had to be investigated. While Disney is a very profitable company, cleaning is a significant cost for the company, and they wanted to make sure their funds were used appropriately. I am sure school administrators can relate to cleaning budget and cost issues, and few are in the comfortable financial position of the Disney company. What I found, and how we addressed these issues is discussed below.

Overtime payments were out of control.

Because workers were not completing all of their assigned duties in the time allotted on a regular basis, they were asked to work an extra hour or two to complete their tasks. By addressing and improving worker morale and ending the tensions discussed earlier, more workers were finishing their work on time. Plus, cleaning workers were held more accountable for their time. If they did not finish all of their duties, we wanted to know why.

Cleaning methods and procedures were scrutinized to determine if the most efficient methods were being used. Staff training programs were implemented. Products and cleaning equipment used in the facility were also examined to see if new products could improve cleaning effectiveness and worker productivity.

Ultimately, overtime was eliminated, saving the company a lot of money. However, we should mention that while there was an improvement in worker productivity and accountability, it did not apply to all. Some cleaning workers decided to leave.

Supply Spending

As with all large organizations, including school districts, supply costs can get out of hand. Very often, several cleaning products are purchased all for the same or similar purpose. Reducing this number to one or two usually allows purchasers to take advantage of manufacturer rebates or bulk-purchase discounts.

Sometimes products are purchased for one department or one school while another department/school has more than enough to share. In some cases, what is called “indirect spend” is an issue. While large purchases must be approved by a purchasing department, smaller ones do not. These are indirect purchases, and they can add up to significant amounts.

All of these and others were purchasing problems we encountered at Disney. Eventually, we were able to get on top of spending and lower these costs significantly.


Finally, we had to deal with complaints from department heads and building users. Overall, using the box strategy, these were reduced. The entire cleaning department had become much leaner and far more efficient and effective. The staff was happier with their jobs and each other, and this was reflected in their work.

However, there still were some complaints, often from the same department heads. I made it my job to investigate these issues myself first thing in the morning. Seeing things firsthand helped me determine if this was a custodial issue or if, for instance, an area had been used by building users after it had been cleaned.

This helped in many ways. If it was the fault of the cleaning crew, now they knew the problem, and it would be addressed. If it was not, I made sure they were not blamed unjustly. But what was most important, I helped the department head find out exactly what was happening. This improved the relationships between the cleaning workers and the building users, which benefited all parties.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

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