“What does he look like?” I said.
I had been hunting for a new manager for a few weeks, with so little success that when I got a call from the receptionist saying some guy named Mike was inquiring about the management job that I had advertised in the local paper, I was less than enthused.
“Come on, what does he look like?” I said again, unsure if I should waste my time.
Whenever someone comes in and drops off an application, I always ask her to describe them for me. You can tell a lot from first impressions, and she is getting better at paying attention. “He’s still standing here,” she whispered into the phone. “Get down here.” I went.
He was leaning against the door jamb making small talk with her when I walked up behind him. “Mike,” I said putting my hand on his shoulder. He turned and greeted me with a wide smile. “I’m Ralph.” We shook hands. He was older, wore a tie and looked professional; so far so good. He explained that he had seen my ad in the paper; that he lived nearby and that he had a lot of experience managing, albeit in a kitchen. I smiled in spite of myself and took him to the nearby employee break room for a coffee.
“Have you ever worked in housekeeping?” I said. He hadn’t. Normally I would walk the person back to my office and in my most positive tone, explain the job to them; intentionally leaving out all the negatives, (the dirt, the stains, the smells, the call outs, and all the attitudes that they are surely going to be dealing if they take the job). Instead I tell them about the hours, the job duties, the reporting, scheduling, inspecting and the pay. I tell them what it’s like being a department head, about morning meetings and monthly quality assurance meetings and doing rounds. I would do everything I could to sell him or her on the job.
But I was sick of placating, sick of interviewing and sick of meeting people who seemed really interested and capable of doing the job only to see their enthusiasm slip away at the first mention of the word housekeeping. Sometimes I do such a nice job selling them that they take the job despite knowing it’s not for them. Then, of course, it only takes a week or two before they quit because… well, it’s housekeeping.
“Listen,” I said. “This isn’t like running a kitchen, this is housekeeping.” Mike nodded that he knew what the job was. “That means,” I said holding my hand up to stop him from agreeing with me. “For the most part, you are employing people that don’t want to be here anymore than you do. In fact, most of them are only here until they can find something else; anything else. Sometimes you get a notice, most times you don’t.
“There are call outs,” I say. “Lots and lots of call outs. You will hear every excuse in the world.” “The kids are sick…,” “I’m sick…,” “The car broke down…,” “My neighbor’s car broke down…,” “My dog is missing…,” “The power went out last night and so my alarm didn’t go off.” Oh, and my favorite, “I got arrested on Saturday and couldn’t call in.” He looked at me skeptically. “I wish I was making that last one up,” I said and we both laughed.
“The whole time, the residents, nurses, doctors and everyone else who works or visits this facility will scuff their feet when they walk, spill coffee, drop trash on the floor, explode food items in the microwave, and track dirt, mud and snow throughout the facility without any regard to you, the building or your staff.
“And you, my friend, will be in charge of getting it cleaned it up every day, seven days a week; three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. Nursing homes are open every day; on your birthday, Jesus’s birthday, on the hottest days and on the coldest. When you are sick, when your staff is sick, when you are fully staffed and when you’re not. And the whole time you will need to make sure that the building is getting cleaned and disinfected.”
I paused, realizing that I was getting more and more animated as I talked. I leaned back in my chair and noticed the sink. “We used to have a sign over that sink,” I said gesturing toward it. “The sign said, ‘Your Mother doesn’t work here, so pick up after yourself.’ But someone thought it was offensive and took it down.” The sink was filled with dirty dishes.
“Who is supposed to wash the dishes?” Mike said.
“Ah,” I said. “That is the question. If you ask me; I say whoever uses the dishes should be the ones washing them. But as you can see, we don’t get a lot of cooperation.” We sat in silence for a few minutes sipping our coffees.
When I got promoted to a district manager a few years before (overseeing multiple facilities), one of my first tasks was to find my replacement. I remember being excited. This was the first time I had ever recruited, interviewed and hired managers. Up to this point I had always hired front line staff.
I put ads in the paper, collected applications and started interviewing. I always started the interviews with disqualifying questions, a trick I learned while being screened for the Marine Corps. “Let me ask you a few questions first,” the Marine Gunnery Sergeant bellowed when I went in to the recruiting office looking to enlist. In rapid succession he rifled off about twenty questions. “How old are you, where did you go to school, did you graduate, any college, have you ever been injured, in an accident, do you have any pins / plates / screws / or had any reconstructive surgery done, and why do you want to be a Marine?”
After answering all the questions, the Gunnery Sergeant explained that he always starts the recruiting process trying to disqualify the person. “You can’t be stupid if you want to be a Marine,” he said. “You also can’t have any physical limitations and, if I can talk you out of being a Marine, here in my office, you would never be able to pass boot camp.”
After hiring, starting, training and then losing my first five management candidates I called my boss. “I don’t think I can do this,” I said. It had been months since I got the directive to “find my replacement” with no luck. I started to think that maybe hiring managers was beyond my abilities.
“It’s a numbers game,” he said. You have to hire ten to get one.” He also told me to stop trying to talk people out of the job. “You have to make sure they can legally work and don’t have background issues, but then you have to sell them on the job.” I looked at Mike.
“I know I am supposed to be sugar-coating this job,” I said. “Saying it’s all sunshine and rainbows; but it isn’t.” I sat up and rested my arms on the table, leveling with him. “All the staff here works pretty hard and they are great people but it’s housekeeping. If you’ve never worked in housekeeping it can be a bit disconcerting.”
I tell him about my first few months in housekeeping, with the pink office and the constant blinking red light that always warned of a call out or an issue on the floor. I tell him that most people, especially those that have never worked in this environment before, really struggle with the job.
“It’s certainly not for the weak at heart,” I say. “It’s like guerilla warfare but for managers.”
Mike looked at me nodding his head practically the whole time. “I can do it,” he said. I looked at him with my best “oh really?” expression (lips pursed, eyebrows raised). He looked back at me, blank faced and serious. “I can do it,” he said again.
“I’m sure you can,” I said. “The question is, after everything I told you, do you really want to?”
“Yes,” he said. “Actually, I appreciate your honesty.”
Mike turned out to be one of my best managers, and for good reason. By being completely honest and up front with him about the job and what to expect, both the good and the bad, he was better equipped and prepared to handle it.
“It’s not nearly as bad as you made it out to be,” Mike said a few months later. We were sitting in the employee break room having a coffee and going over some paperwork. I laughed. Over the sink Mike had put up a framed picture of a motherly looking woman in an apron. She was standing in a kitchen. “Your mother doesn’t work here, so pick up after yourself,” it said.
“Nice touch,” I said nodding toward it; the sink was empty.
“We’re starting to get some cooperation,” Mike said.
Selling someone on a job is tricky. On one hand, you want to lie and say “It’s the best job ever… I swear!” On the other, you want to be upfront and honest about everything, because, let’s face it, they are going to find out.
In the end, I have found that being honest, about both the good and the bad, up front, takes longer to fill housekeeping positions then if you over sell and sugar coat everything. But the employees and managers tend to last a whole lot longer.
A little more than a year later, I was promoted to a Regional Director position and Mike took mine.
He continues to oversee multiple facilities and every time I see him, we always talk about the same thing; the day we met and how hard I tried talking him out of taking the job.
“You really didn’t want me to take the job,” he says. I always laugh and shake my head.
“Not true,” I say. “I just didn’t want you to quit.”