New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Standing Sentry

Mark Hamilton is impressed with doormen, especially those who work the 3:00 to 11:00 P.M. shift. "When I watch them, it's amazing how on top of things they are," says Hamilton, a Charles H. Greenthal & Company property manager who oversees the 378-unit Imperial House on Central Park West. From observing cameras to opening doors to watching the street itself, his doormen are always at the top of their game. "I'm a manager and I'm not sure I could do what they do."

Doormen are the silent sentinels, the front line in the daily operations of a building. In cap and uniform, they are the public face of the very personal business of overseeing the homes of the many thousands of apartment owners in New York City. And, since September 11, doormen have felt more pressure than ever to be vigilant about security.

"A lot of things are different since September 11," says Hamilton, "and not just for the doormen. Security is something we've looked at a lot in our building. Although we always considered ourselves the most secure building in New York, there were things that we had taken for granted and things we needed to do better."

Christopher O'Sullivan, the day doorman at 200 East 69th Street, a Trump condominium, believes he has noticed a shift in the attitude of the residents toward the building's doormen since the terrorist attacks of September 11. "I think they recognize the role more. They know us all by name, and I think they feel comfortable when they see the familiar face. We're not taken for granted."

"After 9/11, the job changed in the sense that everything is watched more closely now," agrees Michael Cunniffe, a doorman at 565 West End Avenue for over a dozen years. "Especially the superintendent; he's checking his people; never leaves the door unattended in the back." And, overall, "it's a matter of being alert. That's why we're there. That's why the people hire us to be there. You give them the best you can and don't goof off."

Beyond safety, doormen enhance value for a building. For when it comes to selling an apartment to prospective buyers, a doorman can seal the deal faster than anything else, notes David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty. The two primary items that potential buyers are looking for in a doorman are "customer service and people skills."

If a buyer is looking at two identical apartments, an apartment in a building with a doorman will be worth more, points out Kuperberg. "Buildings that have doormen provide services that buildings without doormen cannot provide: they accept packages, get taxis, announce visitors, and deter unwanted visitors. They provide a whole host of services. They are very, very valuable."

What do you need in your doorman? How is he hired, what does he do, and, if he is not performing up to the board's standards, how is he fired?

Manning the Doors, Plus

When it comes to hiring a doorman, many management companies and superintendents interview a set of applicants, and then cull the best from the list. In some instances, however, board members like to be involved. When that happens, says Lynn Whiting, director of management at Argo, she reviews the prospective applicants, picks out the top ones, and then has them interview with the board and the super. But most of the time, a property will leave the hiring to the management company, because the board does not have direct supervisory control over the staff.

The duties of a doorman differ from building to building. "The board, in conjunction with the managing agent and the resident manager [superintendent], sets the doorman's duties," and the primary ones are "security and service," points out Paul Herman, a managing director of the residential department of Rose Associates. This means keeping a keen eye on the front door, and making sure no one has access who doesn't belong or hasn't been expressly invited.

So that there is no confusion over what the job entails, most management firms distribute a list of job responsibilities. "Their primary responsibility is to be aware of the people coming in and out of the building - in effect, to secure the lobby," says Anita Sapirman, president of Saparn Realty.

Practically speaking, a doorman can and should provide any service that will not interfere with his main duty. These may include:

  • Opening and closing the door.
  • Hailing cabs.
  • Cleaning the lobby.
  • Handling mail and packages.
  • Keeping a logbook (of incoming and outgoing guests and/or contractors).
  • Relaying messages.

Then there all the don'ts: no cell phone use while on duty, no reading at the front desk, no eating at the front desk, and no use of the lobby phone for personal calls. The doorman is the first person a guest will see on entering, so his appearance is of the utmost importance, stresses Sapirman.

Personality Counts

How a doorman performs his duties is just as important as what they are. Most buildings prefer their doormen to be courteous and friendly. Since a doorman usually serves many years (see sidebar, p. 28), it's important that he complement the image of the building. "You look for a very specific type of person," confides one manager, someone who is intelligent, neat and has good communication skills. You look for common sense, "and you also look for someone who has a pleasant demeanor."

At the Imperial House, Hamilton, the property manager, has honed his list of traits his doormen must have. The doorman must be polite, even-tempered, and able to deal with difficult people. He has to be intelligent, be able to multi-task, and send a signal at the same time that he is in control of a situation.

This last is particularly important because the co-op, a full city block wide, is a hive of activity 24 hours a day. The building's doormen need to know what's going on at all times at the building's entrances, while answering questions, directing contractors, accepting packages, hailing taxis, and otherwise manning the front doors. "There is always a lot of activity through our front door," says Hamilton. "You want someone who will exude self-confidence that lets people know they are on top of things."

Often, it's up to the manager to find the correct fit. About three years ago, Harvey Kowchai was working at a large co-op in Queens when Argo's Whiting moved him to a smaller, upscale condominium off Union Square in Manhattan. Kowchai acknowledges that dealing with the young, urban professionals at his new condo is a little easier for him than dealing with some of the elderly residents of his former co-op, who often came downstairs to bend his ear with complaints.

"Older people are a little more picky and complain a little more," he observes, which contrasts to the young professionals at his current property, who clap him on the shoulder when they've seen him take care of a task. "A little pat on the shoulder and 'thanks' tells me I'm doing a good job."

How a doorman presents himself to potential buyers is very important. How he looks and acts sets the tone for the building right away, says Guy Smiley, president of a luxury co-op on the East Side. "They welcome your guests. They are the greeter, and the security." And the doormen are the first employees who give potential buyers a sense of the building. "I can't tell you how many times people have told me, 'I decided to buy in the building because your doorman showed so much class,'" reports Hamilton.

If it is the doormen who provide that extra value, it is the residents who can make or break the job. During his years at the door, Michael Cunniffe has done all the things that doormen do every day: open doors, hail taxis, greet residents, announce guests, and sign for packages. And then there are all the unofficial tasks he has undertaken: soothed tempers, minded children, walked dogs, fed cats, watered plants and offered advice. Dealing with the residents is like dealing with a large extended family.

"You know who to open up to and chat and talk - and you know who to greet and be polite with and just mind your own business," explains Cunniffe. "You know who you can be friendly with, and who you're just very proper with." He adds: "Then, of course, I believe what you give out is what you get back." Be kind and patient with people, and they will be the same with you. "I have walked the dog for people, I have fed cats, watered plants. That's not part of a doorman's job - [you do it] when you're off-duty."

When some board members start to demand one-on-one attention, Saparn Realty property managers have stepped in and "asked them just to let us follow the normal procedures for doormen," explains Sapirman, so there is no confusion in the job assignment. Sometimes, a board member may feel that he or she has the right to more services. For example, a board member may want a doorman to act as a personal valet and deliver things to his door. The doorman's job is security, says Sapirman. They can't take on any responsibility that takes them away from the primary job of watching a building's front doors. The board members who ask for extras should recognize that "they have the same rights as everyone else in the building. They must try to follow the same rules as everyone else."

Watching the Watchers

While a board will work with a managing agent and resident manager to outline the duties of a doorman, the board has no direct supervisory control over the doorman once he is hired, say management executives. This is to both to protect the employee and the board - for when someone works in the lobby of a residential home, the personal and the political can clash in unfortunate ways. That doesn't mean that the board's opinions are not important. Management executives say that a building's property manager needs to get direct feedback on the performance of the doorman, as he or she is the doorman's supervisor. The superintendent, present daily, is key in the evaluation process.

For those boards that are tempted to micromanage, Sapirman has her property managers delicately step in to say, "Back off." "It's inappropriate," she says of a board's effort to tell the doormen what to do after they have been hired and given their list of duties.

Argo's Whiting says she encourages her boards to give their building managers feedback on how each doorman is doing. Not only does that give the board members a place to vent their issues with building employees, but it also provides valuable information for the manager in evaluating performance.

"While the board does not have a direct supervisory role with respect to doormen, they live in the building and interact with the staff on a daily basis," points out Whiting, which gives them the perspective to "point out the good qualities, and the opportunities for improvement." This kind of information is valuable for property managers, who, though they may visit the building regularly, are not there nights and weekends and so can't judge some of the doormen's performance.

Herman, of Rose Assciates, says that his company also likes the board's involvement when it comes to the selection of the uniform, because the outfit is part of the building's aesthetic. There are all kinds of details, from the color - black or dark green - to the weave of the fabric, summer uniforms versus winter uniforms, white gloves versus no gloves, hats, vests, winter jackets. The board helps determine the uniform and the management company then issues it.

Even though the board members don't have direct supervisory control, their state of mind can affect whether the doorman stays in his job. If he repeatedly shows up late, doesn't wear his full uniform - forgets the hat or gloves - if he is disrespectful to the residents or their guests, or if he is sloppy, the building manager is instructed to document the lapses. That way, a case can be made if the board decides the doorman should be fired.

"There are certain obvious infractions to the job where you can fire him," explains Herman, such as drinking on the job or fighting with staff members or residents. "If it's more a case of bad performance, then you have to build a case - sleeping on the job, rudeness, lateness - it needs to be documented. If residents have complaints about a doorman, we would ask that it be put in writing, because other [witnesses] are not always [present]. We might even request that the resident - shareholder or board member - come down and testify at [an arbitration] hearing."

One management company executive recalls a case where a board member of a luxury prewar co-op on the East Side returned home late one evening and found herself unable to get into the building. The doorman was sleeping around the corner in the lobby. It was the second time that it had happened, and the company fired him. It went to arbitration with the union, Local 32BJ, and the co-op prevailed.

Finding a doorman who is respectful, intelligent, conscientious, and well turned out is not always easy, acknowledge management executives, and when a good doorman is found, some firms will work hard to make sure the doorman stays happy.

Safe, Not Sorry

When asked whether the job has changed since September 11, most doormen say that the job is still the same: watching the front door and looking out for the safety of the residents. But for residents buying into a building with a doorman, there is an extra sense of security.

"September 11 heightened our awareness" concerning safety, says Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers, but the doorman is still dealing with the same issues: How does he reach the person who may have a child waiting in the lobby? How can a doorman effectively deal with orders to evacuate a building, or get in touch with residents if there is a fire or any other emergency in the building?

Some argue that boards should take advantage of every educational opportunity to further the skills of their building staff, including doormen. Russell, who teaches at the 32BJ school, says that doormen should avail themselves of the union classes offered: computer literacy, English as a second language, writing, occupational hazards, and the importance of safe working conditions. While some property managers say that sending doormen to classes meant for superintendents and porters may be overkill, Russell disagrees.

"Their role is to be alert and proactive and creative in finding solutions for the moment. It's no different than in a football game - there are almost an infinite number of scenarios that exist at any given time. The doorman's role is to be able to assert himself to make those creative calls. It's not just about having a good phone list. He needs to have the wherewithal and the authority to make judgment calls within certain boundaries."

If there is an emergency in the building, the absence of the superintendent or the handyman leaves the weight of communications with the residents on the doorman. The doorman needs to know how and when to step into an emergency situation and see it through to the other side, says Russell.

Security is on everyone's minds these days, agrees Whiting. "For a lot of people, when they are looking for a place to live, a doorman is the No. 1 criterion on their list. They want the security for themselves and their family. Someone at the front door who's being vigilant, and watching who's coming into the building makes people feel safe. And that's extremely important in these times."

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