The stranger behind the mop

26th of May 2017
The stranger behind the mop

Are your cleaners actually who they claim to be? Ann Laffeaty asks contract cleaners how they optimise safety and security – both for customers and for the cleaners themselves.

Cleaners are an invisible workforce. They glide silently around our hospitals, schools, hotels and airports, cleaning up our messes often while we sleep.

But who exactly is that individual behind the cleaning trolley? Who is the man wielding a mop? Where does he come from - and more importantly, is he who he says he is?

Companies need to place a high level of trust in cleaning staff who are often expected to work autonomously, out of office hours and on short-term contracts. But hiring cleaners is not without its dangers.

This has been highlighted by UK-based cleaning contractor Julius Rutherfoord in its new best practice white paper: Security in Cleaning1. The publication is accompanied by an infographic2 and includes advice on issues such as verifying identities, authenticating documents, pre-employment screening, biometric recognition and GPS fleet monitoring.

“Staff and contractors have the right to work in a safe environment,” says operations director Chris Parkes. “The risks of poor security vetting have always been present but are even more of an issue today.

“Trends such as an increase in illegal workers and the threat of terrorism make proper security vetting of paramount importance for everyone involved.”

He believes that security checks need to be improved and standardised across the industry. “While we champion a progressive attitude to improving staff retention and safety, there is no getting away from the fact that the cleaning industry has a reputation for high staff turnover,” he said.

Julius Rutherfoord regularly rejects between 20 and 40 per cent of its applicants due to forged or out-of-date IDs. “This shows just how complacent some contractors have become – and how strong security measures need to be,” said Parkes. “Fake documents simply should not get past if rigorous security vetting procedures are in place.”

He claims that a spate of recent security lapses in contract cleaning have damaged the industry’s reputation. “For example in one case a burglar posing as a cleaner stole €20,000 worth of office equipment plus cash from some London facilities to which he had tricked his way in,” said Parkes.

“While this particular case involved a lone wolf criminal masquerading as a cleaner there can be no doubt that contract cleaning companies still need to step up their security vetting procedures.”

Raising the bar

Julius Rutherfoord claims to be raising the bar in terms of best practice for security in cleaning. “Some contract cleaners vet potential employees using Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) checks and they fail to use the latest technology when it comes to verifying photographic IDs,”
said Parkes.

“Depending on the location, facilities managers should also seek to establish whether cleaning operatives have been checked against the Children’s Barred List. The British Standard BS 7858:2012 is the recognised benchmark for performing candidate and employee screening within the UK. Clients should be asking if their cleaning company is vetting to this level.”

Julius Rutherfoord goes above and beyond DBS checks when verifying identities, according to Parkes. “We have extra document authentication and pre-employment screening processes in place,” he said. “DBS checks will only go so far and are useless if the ID in question is fake.”

Poor vetting

He claims that poor vetting poses safety and security risks for cleaning operatives as well as for the company employing them. “Cleaners are often expected to work outside normal office hours, during the early mornings and evenings,” he said. “As well as protecting the facility, security best practice also safeguards the cleaning operatives themselves.

“And cleaners working illegally are also at risk of exploitation: there have been cases of employers knowingly taking on illegal workers and seeking to exploit or blackmail them, for instance.”

Security is always a prime concern in the cleaning industry agrees operations director of AM Services Group in the UK Greg O’Brien.

“It is something we must be continually mindful and vigilant about if we value strong customer relationships and the confidence of our clients,” he said. “Cleaning staff work 24/7 and are often unsupervised. They also have access to all areas. It is therefore vital that we ensure to the best of our ability that our clients can trust them.”

He says there are stringent requirements in place for security-checking cleaners who work in schools and hospitals in order to protect vulnerable groups. “For other contracts, staff need to provide documentation to identify them by proof of address and national insurance number,” says O’Brien.

“Without this, nobody goes on to our payroll. Cleaning staff also need to be able to meet the very clear criteria for ‘right to work’.”

AM Services has a relatively low staff turnover, according to O’Brien. “However we are constantly recruiting for multiple positions when we gain new contracts,” he said. “Like other cleaning service providers we find the use of recruitment agencies for this type of high-volume recruitment to be cost-prohibitive. Therefore the level of security checking and personal vetting that needs to take place requires substantial company resources.”

Meeting compliance

He says AM Services takes the security of its client sites very seriously. “We take all possible steps to ensure that compliance is met in this area,” he said. “The legislation is currently robust for checking people coming from overseas to work and it would certainly support and raise the bar in the industry if the same stringent standards were applied to UK nationals as well.

“Our management system also allows us to run self-checks and gives advance notice of ‘right to work’ renewals so that we are always one step ahead of compliance.” However, he adds that the company has a very low percentage of people applying for work with papers that cannot
be verified.

As far as staff safety is concerned, this is a high priority for AM Services according to O’Brien. “Around 50 per cent of our cleaning team works outside of normal office hours, and often alone,” he explains. “There is a full safety escalation process in place across all our sites along with lone worker tracking systems and lone worker check calls.

“And as part of our rigorous customer training service all our staff are fully equipped to deal with vulnerable groups, aggressive behaviour and threatening situations.”

Austria-based cleaning firm Markas has a strict vetting procedure for its employees according to human resources director Peter Gasser.

“All candidates are asked to provide their original documents and are given a questionnaire to fill out,” he said. “Their documents are then scanned and sent to the human resources department together with a completed form. The HR department also checks whether the candidate is allowed to work in Austria. If any documents are missing, they will not process the application.”

He says this system ensures there are no illegal workers at the company. “If a candidate comes to us looking for a job but has insufficient paperwork, the Markas operative will kindly but firmly decline their application and direct them to the authorities,” said Gasser.

The safety and security of cleaners themselves is not usually an issue for Norway-based Insider Facility Services according to marketing and purchasing manager Thor Nielsen.

“Few of our contracts are fulfilled by just one person and the majority of cleaners begin work at five o’clock in the morning,” he said. “However, all our employees have access to online HSE guidelines that cover different situations.”

Citizens of Nordic countries can work freely with no time limit at Insider Facility Services according to the nation’s policy. “Besides a few minor exemptions the only requirements are a Norwegian tax card and a Norwegian address,” said Nielsen.

“Citizens of EU/EEA and EFTA countries can work here for up to three months. After that they must register electronically for a registration certificate issued at a police station. And citizens from countries outside the EU/EEA must have a Norwegian residence and work permit and in these cases we usually check with the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration for confirmation.”

He says the company makes a few other checks during the interview process. “For example we ask for a social security number, valid passport, tax card and a bank account number with a Norwegian bank before hiring,” he said.

“We can’t demand a police certificate for just anybody, only where it is appropriate by law. However it is common for customers in sectors such as healthcare, police, banks and airports to demand that their cleaners pass security courses.”

He says that no-one to his knowledge has ever tried to obtain a job with the company using fake documents. “But the question is, how difficult is it to forge a social security number that will pop up as valid in our system?” he asks. “When we hire for normal contracts with standard security levels we can’t be 100 per cent certain that the company’s cleaning employees are who they say they are.”

Julius Rutherfoord’s Chris Parkes concludes that the question of security should clearly be revisited in today’s uncertain times. “A good system of checks and balances should not stop even when the cleaner has been employed,” he adds. “Attendance and tracking technology will ensure that cleaning operatives are where they should be. This includes biometric identification using fingerprint or iris recognition plus GPS vehicle tracking.

“This way we can be notified in real time if a vehicle in our fleet goes missing or if a cleaning operative doesn’t turn up for a job and we can find out what has happened.”

And he adds that as technology advances, the cleaning industry should be moving towards a more systems-based approach towards staff vetting and improving the safe delivery of cleaning.

“We go above and beyond normal processes when it comes to security in cleaning and we want to lead by example,” said Parkes. “We think other contract cleaners need to take this issue as seriously as we do.”



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