Looking for Mary Poppins: How to Hire Household Help

I will never forget the British girl, a reputed paragon of virtue referred by a friend. She took our four-year-old son to a busy bar to meet her boyfriend one afternoon. Then, two weeks into the job, she simply disappeared, leaving us with no one to tend the kids on the Monday morning of a busy workweek. Not exactly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Hiring household staff seems as if it should be the simplest thing in the world. After all, your home is undoubtedly a beautiful sanctuary, your kids are perfect angels, your demands modest. Unfortunately, reality sets in very quickly.

To fill any position, you must first decide whether to use an agency or find someone yourself. Whatever the level of staffing you need, a fundamental requirement before hiring a potential employee is thorough due diligence. A driver, chef, nanny, butler, or estate manager will likely have your security and safety—not to mention your children’s lives—in his or her hands. If background checks aren’t part of your extended homeowner’s policy, attempting to do them yourself can be extremely difficult. For one thing, they require consents and waivers. To my mind this alone justifies the expense of using an agency.

Any top firm will contact and interview every reference offered by a candidate, going so far as to confirm the reference’s status and background. This is followed by a rigorous check of the candidate’s educational experience, criminal records, driver’s license abstracts, health information, and possibly a doctor’s statement. Drug and other testing is not uncommon. Some agencies will also pull credit profiles to ascertain financial histories and catch any budding money problems that could cause issues.

Werner Leutert of the Home Staffing Network considers the credit check a vital piece of the puzzle. "Generally, if one has a credit issue, there’s a reason," he says. "If it’s caring for a sick spouse or parent, that’s manageable. A gambling problem is something else altogether." And if a hire is not working out, any reputable agency should be willing to act as the go-between, handle the termination process, and offer you at least one suitable replacement in the first three months at no extra charge.

Assuming your potential hire has a clean slate, the most important qualities are experience and focus. According to Katherine Leary Robinson, president of Beacon Hill Nannies in Newton, Massachusetts, "Many of these jobs are ill-suited to the typical temporary worker. Someone who really wants to be an actress probably wouldn’t be happy or effective as anything more than a babysitter." Robinson’s firm only takes people with college degrees in the field who will be educated role models for the kids—"governesses more than just nannies," she says. Like most top domestic agencies, Beacon Hill Nannies requires every candidate to undergo a two- to three-hour personal interview before being accepted into the hiring pool and a psychological test if offered a position. All must be trained in child CPR. Of course, some clients have other concerns. "We actually had one couple specify that their nanny had to be a size six," Robinson says. "Any larger was just socially unacceptable!"

Determining you needs

"A clear definition of responsibilities is vital," says Home Staffing’s Leutert. Al Martino, whose eponymous company specializes in chef placement, agrees. "Too many employers want to turn one person into a full-service provider," he says. "It’s perfectly reasonable to ask a chef to do the shopping, plan menus, and serve dinners. Cooking requires creativity and the ability to handle stress. But you shouldn’t ask a person who trained for years to prepare the perfect blanquette de veau to also walk the dog or mind the kids."

In households with more than a couple of employees, you have to establish the hierarchy. "Obviously, the estate manager is the senior staffer in any complex lifestyle," Leutert explains. Duties may include working with the employer to hire and terminate staff; training; interviewing and supervising all outside contractors; managing household accounts; orchestrating functions; stocking and looking after the wine cellar; scheduling preventive maintenance for the home and automobiles; running errands; and generally making sure the employer’s life is as carefree as possible. A recent estate manager job listing read in part: "This position requires someone who is very flexible, has a thick skin, and is completely unflappable. To succeed you must be able to work very long hours and be available 24/7….Interior decorating experience is a plus!"

While the estate manager runs the house and staff, a personal assistant deals with the employer’s daily schedule. "These two had better get along," Leutert says. "It would be inconceivable to hire either one without first trying to see how they interact." In some cases a married couple splits these roles—often a very successful arrangement. "The days of the older European couples may be past," says Leutert, "but these can be stimulating, well-paying jobs that offer an interesting life and can attract exceptional husband-and-wife teams."

Learning the legalese

A solid written contract or memorandum can help avoid problems, and most good companies have simple proprietary legal forms that can readily be customized. Employment attorney Louis Pechman advises that these agreements clearly set out responsibilities and terms of payment. More important is whether the individual has the status of employee or independent contractor. "Since determining this can be tricky," Pechman says, "it’s well worth a fifteen-minute call to your lawyer to avoid the serious consequences of misclassification." Each state has separate wage and hour laws that may apply. A recent court ruling in Maryland ordered that a dismissed nanny be paid $44,880 in overtime based on the lack of an employment contract or any sort of time sheet.

Using arbitration rather than the courts to decide disputes is often a good idea. A confidentiality agreement may seem to offer some protection, but, says employment arbitrator Jacquelin Drucker, "once a case is in court, all records generally become public. Private arbitration gives the parties the same legal rights and protections using the same (albeit more streamlined) processes while shielding the file from the public eye."

Once you hire someone, the paperwork can be daunting. The days of paying people off the books are over—or at least they should be, according to Pechman. "The legal and financial risks of undocumented staff are too great," he says. "It’s not just the embarrassment factor; there are huge liability issues as well." Filing all the proper taxes, along with workers’ compensation and disability insurance, is mandatory. Most agencies offer this service or can refer a provider. "Before one gets hurt on the job," says Pechman, "you want your liability insurer to be aware of every person working in your house or driving your car." Some go so far as to maintain separate credit card, telephone, and Internet accounts in their employees’ names. "That way if they’re downloading pirated songs, videos, or even kiddie porn, it’s not on your account," Pechman says. "Don’t overlook a comprehensive confidentiality agreement. What happens in your home is private and should stay that way."

Securing your safety

One area clearly not to be overlooked is security. "Too many high-net-worth households hire a retired law enforcement officer to handle a level of lifestyle, complexity, and risk that really requires specialized knowledge and expertise," says Jeffrey Marquart of Gavin de Becker & Associates, a high-end-security consultant who works with many government agencies and public figures. "Some have the appropriate level of experience, but you wouldn’t hire a part-timer or a retiree to be your lawyer or surgeon. Specific skills and constant training are vital. Our job is the opposite of instilling paranoia: We want to minimize anxiety and replace it with confidence."

Marquart’s firm handles everything from background checks to hiring full-time security personnel. It will train your staff, assess threats, engineer safe rooms, even review pre-construction plans. "We’ve designed security systems in more than six hundred new and existing homes," Marquart says. "They have to be reliable and simple enough for people to understand and use them. James Bond systems are great, but you actually have to turn them on to get the benefit!"

Mike Offit spent more than two decades on Wall Street, during which he was head commercial mortgage trader at Goldman Sachs.

Who to Call

Childcare and Nannies

Beacon Hill Nannies
617-630-1577 beaconhillnannies.com

General Staff (estate managers, chefs, personal assistants)

Al Nartino Agency

Home Staffing Network
239-262-0724 homestaffingnetwork.com


Gavin de Becker & Assoc.
818-505-0177, ext. 3123 gavindebecker.com

Employment Lawyers

Vision Law Corp.
Scott Shibayama 916-780-1920 visionlaw.com

New York
Berke-Weiss & Pechman
Louis Pechman 212-583-9500 bwp-law.com

New York and Ohio
Jacquelin Drucker