Guarding the Gates A Spotlight on Your Doorman

As one of the doorman for the residents of 565 West End Avenue, Michael Cunniffe has been opening doors, accepting packages, hailing taxis and shoveling sidewalks for over twelve years. "I like my job; I'm a people person," says Cunniffe, who is also a retired bus driver. "I deal with the public all the time. I have no complaints."

Doorman, like Cunniffe, often work in a single building for years, getting to know the residents and shareholders like family. During my brief chat with Cunniffe, he confidently multi-tasked - signing for a package, giving directions to a passerby, and enthusiastically welcoming back newlyweds as if they were his own family returning home. A doorman is everyone's first impression of a residential building and the level of courtesy and convenience the building community offers its residents.

A Good Man on the Door

Among many other qualities, a good doorman should obviously have a pleasant demeanor, good communication skills, is attentive, a keen understanding of good service, and a sense of humor. Alertness, reliability, and attention to detail are also must-haves.

A doorman's responsibilities, however, extend far from a pleasant greeting and assistance at the front door. "Being a doorman is not an easy job and it's probably the hardest in a building," said Peter Grech, president of the Superintendents Club of New York, a non-profit technical society of building superintendents, doormen and other building personnel. "Doormen are in the public light, and it's not as simple as just opening and closing the doors. There's a lot of stress being a doorman. You're dealing with people and their homes. If a package is lost or a key is misplaced, usually it's taken out on the doorman before [the information] even gets to the super."

Security has also become a bigger responsibility of the doorman since 9/11. Preventing unwelcome visitors, monitoring security cameras and maintaining logs of delivered packages are vital to keeping a building safe. After the attacks, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which represents 75,000 building service employees, including doormen, porters, maintenance workers, cleaners, security guards, and superintendents began to implement strategies that train their union members in building security. Earlier this year, the union negotiated $1 million a year from building owners for safety and security training.

According to the Superintendent's Club of New York, there really is no written job description that covers all doormen - or any building personnel - across the board. The job description for a particular job will cover that job only. It's up to the owner or management to come up with a list of duties that are provided by an individual doorman.

This list may vary depending on the size of the building and which shift the doorman is working. However, a doorman is not to be confused with a concierge. "A concierge is strictly behind the desk and directs the lobby from behind the desk," said Grech. "A doorman doesn't sit behind a desk."

Roles and Responsibilities

A doorman occupies an equitable position in the hierarchy of building personnel along with handymen and porters, all of whom are under the supervision of the superintendent. Many doormen have maintenance experience and may assist the building super, or one day become superintendents themselves.

While the foremost responsibility of the doorman is building security, late-shift doormen may also have porter responsibilities, including cleaning lobbies and hallways. During snowy and icy winter seasons, all shifts are responsible for keeping sidewalks clear to prevent falls.

"Working a door in winter is the hardest time," says Cunniffe. "It gets cold standing out there while trying to hail a taxi for someone. You also have to leave the door open when you're outside, so you can hear what's going on inside. You constantly have to be on the watch and keep the front of the building clear."

Grech agrees that wintertime is the doorman's hardest and busiest season. "Not only do they have to assist with snow removal, but typically there are more residents home during the winter in comparison to the summer," he said. "It's a season where tenants may complain about heat, and most tenants will contact the superintendent via the doorman."

Finding Your (Door)Man

In New York, most residential buildings provide doorman amenities either around-the-clock, or from 8 a.m. to midnight and these employees have access to entryways and keys. As a result, when management companies hire a doorman, background checks are crucial. "You are entrusting the keys to your castle to a person who you know nothing about," says Tim O'Brien, president of Criminal Intelligence Administration in Astoria, N.Y., an independent security-consulting firm. "If you don't perform a background investigation, it could spell trouble."

When management companies want to hire any building personnel, O'Brien urges the board to complete a thorough background investigation, which includes residence verification, criminal history, employment verification, driver's license check and a credit history. Problems on any of these screened areas will give the employer a peek inside the employee's character and may prevent potential problems later.

"Nobody's background check is going to be absolutely perfect, but say, for example, someone has numerous suspensions on their driver's license or really bad credit - it's a character assessment," says O'Brien. "People are products of their past, and these problems may show that the applicant may not be very trustworthy."

However, O'Brien cautions management that hiring a new employee should be done on a case-by-case basis. "If someone was late paying bills two years ago or if that's all [the discrepancies] they have, you still might hire the person," he said. "Employers cannot base their hiring decisions on arrests, but only on convictions."

There are many methods by which a board or agent can obtain an applicant's background information. There are dozens of Internet databases that can run background checks on individuals for a small fee, but for a bit more money, a private investigative service can do a much more thorough, in-depth check.

"You have to have the knowledge to interpret these reports," he said. "A licensed private investigator who is bonded and insured has more experience, is more thorough and can interpret the information." According to O'Brien, most reports on prospective Manhattan employees can be generated within 24 hours, but in some jurisdictions it may take several days. Private investigators can charge from $150 to $600 for the check, depending on the extensiveness of the search.

At the Argo Corporation, a Manhattan-based residential management firm, most doormen begin as relievers, covering for full-time doormen when illness strikes or during vacation time. "We need relief doorpersons, because it's not like other jobs where if you call in sick, you can catch up with your work tomorrow," says Lynn Whiting, Argo's director of management. "There has to be a person in that lobby."

Hiring relievers gives the management company an opportunity to provide training and assess the reliever's performance. If the reliever is qualified to provide full-time service, the management corporation will place them when an opportunity becomes available. "The doormen get training through the relief system as well as local union classes," says Whiting. "We train them on new issues, such as what they should do in case of an emergency or a blackout. After 9/11, they tightened the belt and implemented new procedures and enhanced building security. We train on that, too."

Management companies do not go to the local union to hire a doorman. Usually, a prospective employee will be hired by the company and will then look into joining a union, where they may take training classes, although none are required.

However, if a doorman provides security, says O'Brien, they must complete an eight-hour training course. "After 90 days of employment, they also need to complete a 16-hour on the job training course and every year an eight-hour refresher course," he said.

After driving buses for 30 years, Cunniffe didn't think he would be working again, but his pension simply wasn't enough to retire on. After performing the necessary background checks, his outgoing personality helped him to get the job.

"If a building is hiring a doorman, look to see that person's natural character," says Grech. "If they are a gentleman in their everyday life, they will probably make a great doorman."

That's true of any of your building's support staff, but doubly so for the person who presents your building's human face to the world, who guards the gates to your castle, and who welcomes you back home after a long day.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer based in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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2 Comments

  • Willie Russell-willierussell2004@yahoo.com on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 2:18 PM
    I am a retired Letter Carrier, I have been employed as a part-time Doorman/ Concierge since April 2006. I found your article to be a home run and touchdown all in one deliverable.It related to everything I have experience in the year and eight months of my employment. I like my job I am about six months away from obtaining my degree in Business Administration. A " good doorman is an amenity that is almost priceless." Thank yo u Great Article
  • Catherine Waffenschmidt on Monday, January 09, 2017 11:23 PM
    Thanks for a great spotlight. My Dad was the best and I'm grateful for your article. My father died last week ( 1/6/17) About a month shy of 81 yrs old. I know that all his residents including many in the general neighborhood adored him. He joins my Mom, Agnes, who passed in 9/16/2016.