Leaders have the courage to do what needs to be done to grow their business, even when it means picking up the slack.
Sometimes as cleaning business owners, we manage to convince ourselves that our problems are special and unique.  We do not think anyone can understand what we face every day and no one has ever had the same kinds of issues.  A few years ago, I was visiting with a friend from college who owns her own company nearly identical in size to mine with the same number of employees. Her company is not a residential cleaning company, but a physical therapy practice billing over $100 an hour with a staff holding Master’s Degrees. Her employees are seen as true professionals. She has to be bringing in 3 – 4 times the revenue that I am with the same number of employees. 

So I’m wondering: what on earth she has in common with my business, where I have to fight like mad to bill over $30 an hour and many employees did not graduate high school?  

[EasyDNNnewsToken:Left Justify Embed 300 x 250]She is being driven crazy by her employees. Some have bad attitudes. Some call off way too often. Her call-off rates are 2 – 3 days per MONTH. She has no idea who is going to show up to work from day to day. She told me one of her “favorite” and “best” employees calls off the most.  

She is terrified to be too tough on her therapists, especially the “good” ones, because they may go independent and do home health care without all the same overhead that she has with office rent, liability insurance, and so on.  She is starting to hate her business because she feels trapped by her employees.  

It is the same conversation I have had hundreds of times with cleaning service owners. We often fool ourselves into thinking we have the problems we do because of the “type” of people we employee.  

I have news for you: all service businesses have the same issue whether you pay your people $9.00 an hour or $50.00. It is a problem of leadership, not a problem of the “type” of employees we have.

Tony Hartl, the founder and owner of the largest and most successful chain of tanning salons in the world, writes in his book Selling Sunshine:

“Starting early in my career, I refused to be held hostage by employees, even if it meant taking extreme measures. I always believed that I could work myself out of any situation. I wasn’t going to let the inconvenience of working longer or harder get in the way of pulling the trigger on a problem employee.  You just do what’s got to be done.

I was having some staffing issues, and rather than put up with it, I fired five people in one fell swoop. Obviously, that created a huge gap in the work schedule, forcing me to open and close the club for several weeks. I had to work around the clock and sleep at the club to pick up the slack. Believe it or not, this schedule was much better than dealing with problem employees.”

Tony eventually created a culture that attracted some of the best employees, but if you think he never made a mistake, you are wrong.  Bad employees will sneak in, and you need to get rid of them as soon as possible, regardless of the cost. Keeping them is far worse than losing them, no matter what you may think.  

These employees are called On-Board Terrorists.  They will do everything in their power to take you down from the inside. They recruit others to their cause, and they take customers as hostages. They will terrorize you and your good employees until they destroy your company and your peace of mind. You need to get rid of your on-board terrorists as soon as you identify them.

This is a lesson it took me far too long to learn. I kept poor performers on for too long because I was worried about how to service my clients. I have learned it is far better to call a client and politely tell them I am short on staff than to send a bad employee into their home. Of course I want to do everything in my power to hire the best possible people. But when a bad person sneaks by or when a good employee goes bad, you have to make the hard decisions. You are in charge. If you don’t do it, no one will. To quote Tony, “You just do what’s got to be done.”

Let me give you one more thought of encouragement. In the movie We Bought a Zoo, one of the main characters explains to his son that life is often shaped by just 20 seconds of insane courage. Your business is not so different. When we are truly honest with ourselves, we do not fire people due to fear. We know it needs to be done, but we hate firing people and we are afraid of what will happen when we do.  
In all my years in this business I have never had a problem employee that turned around, nor have I met a cleaning company owner who did. You need to be fair and follow your procedures, but when the time comes, you need to muster up your 20 seconds of insane courage and just do it. Do not drag it out with some long lecture. Be professional but be polite. “I am sorry but you have broken company policies too many times and I need to let you go. We will need your company supplies back tomorrow by 9 AM. We will send you your final check on Friday.” Done. 20 seconds of extreme bravery.  

If you cannot do that, I honestly recommend you sell your clients and go work for someone else. If not, you will never have employees who work for you; instead you will be working for them, and it is far better to work for one boss than for multiple employees. It pays better too.

Derek Christian is founder and owner of My Maid Service, Cincinnati’s largest, independent professional cleaning company. Prior to that, he spent twelve years at P&G working on household cleaning products. Derek is co-founder and Editor in Chief of Cleaning Business Today.