Business Essentials: Too much of the new broom: 'How can I persuade my cleaners not to pack it in?'

In a sector short of rewards, Blue Diamond has a lower staff turnover than most. But, says Kate Hilpern, it still wants to keep more of its grimefighters
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The Independent Online

How do you retain staff in a poorly paid industry? That's the dilemma facing Blue Diamond Services, the UK's largest independent cleaning company, which employs around 4,000 people.

"There is a high turnover of staff in the cleaning industry - over 50 per cent in most companies," says Harvey Alexander, chief executive of the firm, which is based in Hanwell, west London, with regional offices in Derby and Cardiff. "It's low-paid work and not particularly rewarding.

"Blue Diamond's turnover is below 20 per cent, which is very good for the industry, but we'd still like to reduce it further."

Blue Diamond started out as a family business in 1944, initially specialising in window cleaning before moving into general office cleaning.

In the late 1990s, the two sons of the founder, Harvey and Mark, decided they wanted to diversify and build up the business. A management buyout followed and they have since gone from strength to strength by finding a niche in the market.

That niche was transport cleaning, and it took the company from a turnover of little more than £1m to £18m.

Last year, the directors decided that they wanted to broaden the business, and after the acquisition of Comatec - a division of waste-management group Onyx - turnover has now reached £35m.

Today, Blue Diamond handles contracts ranging from airports to Tube lines and from borough councils to universities.

"They are all very large contracts with multiple sites, each with high levels of staffing," says Mr Alexander. "And that's what our business is about, really - staff. If the workers do a great job, Blue Diamond is doing a great job - which in turn leads to more contracts. So we want to keep our employees."

In order to attract good workers in the first place, Blue Diamond pays 20 per cent above the going rate, as well as providing comprehensive training, a guarantee of employment and a smart uniform.

"In addition, we've worked hard on developing our corporate brand," says Mr Alexander. "We want people to be proud of working for Blue Diamond and wearing its name on their sleeve."

He says many cleaning companies make the mistake of promoting cleaners to management the minute they show some initiative.

"A lot of these cleaners accept the position despite not wanting the responsibility, because it's better paid. That's one of the reasons for high staff turnover in these companies - inevitable bad management."

Blue Diamond, on the other hand, recruits a large proportion of its managers from outside the cleaning industry. "Many are ex-servicemen, with 20 years or so of experience in man management and record keeping," says Mr Alexander "We promote our cleaners too, but only if we are sure they are capable of the job and that they really want it."

All this leads to a better service, says Mr Alexander - one of the reasons Blue Diamond is perceived as being at the top end of its industry.

"But we'd like to know what else we can do to retain staff. There must be other things."

Making his job even harder, he adds, is the difficulty of convincing customers of just how important it is to invest in better-quality cleaning staff.

"Clients need to realise the value of good staff, which is a difficult message to get across in such a competitive market."

www.blued.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Laurence Hoefkens, managing director, Hays HR Services

"Thanks to its proactive approach to staff retention, Blue Diamond already enjoys a competitive edge. To improve, the next logical step is to introduce an objective diagnostic tool.

"Collecting data anonymously through a questionnaire-based third-party system will encourage honest and revealing responses. Both starters and leavers should be targeted. Carefully constructed questionnaires will allow the company to understand how well they induct people into the organisation, and what they can do to reduce turnover.

"Such tools can be used to track attrition peaks [in staff turnover] and look at trends within departments and geographical areas. By collecting performance data, the responses can also be segmented to understand specifically why the more productive workers are leaving, which means that appropriate action can then be taken.

"Our advice would be to consider ways of devolving responsibility to the individual cleaner. More freedom, combined with increased accountability, generally pays off in terms of greater motivation and commitment. And this, in turn, has a beneficial effect on staff retention."

Angela Baron, adviser, organisation and resourcing, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Our research at the CIPD shows that the things most likely to build loyalty, and hence encourage people to stay, are: a positive relationship with the line manager; having interesting work to do; being able to balance work with other responsibilities; and access to training and career development.

"I would suggest Mr Alexander looks at training those cleaners who show potential in management techniques, before he offers them promotion. This should improve his success rate with internal promotions.

"He could also look at the induction of the new managers coming in to ensure their management style is in keeping with the kind of workforce he is trying to build.

"Even though people might not want full management responsibility, they may respond well if encouraged to take control of certain aspects of their job, perhaps within a teamworking environment.

"Finally he might consider flexible working options to enable staff to combine their job with caring responsibilities or study."

John Kirkham, consultant, The Work Foundation

"Investment in good cleaning staff enhances security and the quality of working environments - essential to a client's productivity and creativity.

"Effective recruitment and exit interviews are obvious measures, but more effective still are retention interviews - what do staff find rewarding and fulfilling in their work?

"This information will enable Blue Diamond to pursue initiatives such as job enrichment and flexible working arrangements, while recognising that people value different things at different stages in their life and career development.

"One of the most common reasons for staying is that people like their colleagues ('friends at work'), and one of the most common reasons for leaving is 'my boss'. So team- working and good leadership improve retention.

"In addition, monitor turnover (by location, occupation, grade, gender, age and ethnicity) and the effectiveness of recruitment practices. Identify what is a 'healthy' turnover for Blue Diamond, develop an action plan and engage line managers in implementation."

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