Family: Hiring The Help

  • Liz Roberts

Vincent Minuto is on the phone with a New York art dealer, and he is fuming. The owner of Hampton Domestics, an employment agency with offices in Sag Harbor, New York City, and Palm Beach, checks off the caller’s requirements: She wants a private chef on call four days a week—but to work and receive payment for only two—to prepare separate meals for her and her husband, who naturally have different tastes in food. The going rate for a chef’s service is $300 to $350 daily, says Minuto, who has worked as a chef, but the woman is willing to pay only $200. “Honey, wake up and smell the coffee; the slaves were freed over 100 years ago,” he says after he has hung up the phone, blaming the woman’s unreasonable expectations on what he calls SWS, or Sudden Wealth Syndrome. “Old money—they understand,” Minuto adds with a sigh. “They’re cheap to begin with, but they respect you as a human.” He should know. His first catering client was Gloria Vanderbilt. Since then, Minuto has managed estates for some of America’s prominent families.

Estate manager Paul Marcus experienced his own brush with SWS in the form of a penny-pinching client who suddenly vaulted into fabulous riches and a huge home. “She killed me,” says Marcus. “She didn’t understand what it takes to run the equivalent of a five-star hotel.” He refused to renew his contract, and she lost a longtime employee. Another experienced houseman claims his nouveau riche employers flew him first-class to the job interview, but after he was hired, they chided him for overspending on Windex and lightbulbs. “I have actually told people, ‘You do not throw shoes at me. I am leaving,’ ” he says.

The relationship between an employer and a domestic worker is unique in that it can be intimate—he or she might live in your home, is privy to your habits and quirks, and has been entrusted with the care of your family and belongings—yet at the same time it is inherently unequal, because he or she also works for you. If that relationship is to be sustained, you must enter it with the understanding that you are hiring a professional person to perform certain tasks. You must set and articulate reasonable expectations, or you will not be able to find—and retain—a capable person.

Jerry Bohme, president and CEO of the 100-year-old Adele Poston Domestic Agency on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, will not even make appointments with new clients until they read what he calls his “communication letter.” This document instructs would-be employers to explain clearly their child-rearing philosophy and housekeeping methods to employees, and reminds them that everyone needs an occasional breather. “People have to be clear about their priorities,” he says. “There are those who want a butler, Mary Poppins, and Hazel the maid, and then a gourmet cook on top of it. You can’t expect one person to do everything.” Bohme, whose agency has made placements with Brooke Astor, the Rockefellers, and Hollywood personalities, says that often the unrealistic expectations result from the jet-set work ethic that produced Sudden Wealth Syndrome. “The harder people have been worked themselves, the faster they have moved up,” he explains. “They assume this translates to domestic help, and it doesn’t.”

Likewise, before she can compile a list of candidates for a client to interview, Robin Kellner, owner of the New York agency that bears her name, asks the client to submit a wish list of everything he or she wants from an employee. Then, depending on the amount of work and expertise required, Kellner structures a position based on a five-day workweek. If the client’s expectations exceed the duties and responsibilities of the position that Kellner has created, then she knows her clients are hoping for too much. “I’m not saying you can’t have a seven-day workweek,” Kellner explains, “but you can’t have it with one person.”

As Bohme’s and Kellner’s practices suggest, hiring the right person
can be a time-consuming exercise, though too many people assume that anyone whom an agency supplies will suffice. Rather than carefully considering the needs and requirements of their household, they find themselves in desperate situations, pleading with placement agencies to send help within the hour. This is a prelude to disaster. Placement agencies and domestic professionals all have horror stories about so-called revolving-door households from which nannies storm out in huffs and housekeepers disappear in midnight flits—invariably before important parties. “It’s a process,” Kellner says of hiring domestic help, “and you have to be willing to go through it.”


Unless a potential employee comes highly recommended from a trusted source, it is a good idea to enlist the expertise of an established, licensed agency (not all states require licensing). Connecticut and New York are among the states that require licenses; California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas are among those that do not. Although it may be tempting to have a personal assistant make the initial call to the agency, he or she will not be able to provide detailed answers to the questions a good agency will ask concerning your life and family in order to supply suitable candidates. You are the only one who knows how often the children have play dates across town, when the rugs need to be cleaned, or even the time of day you prefer to eat dinner.

As for determining which agency to call, ask friends and neighbors for their recommendations, and word of mouth will quickly guide you to respected agencies and away from those that should be avoided. The best placement companies conduct thorough background, reference, and citizenship checks before sending applicants on interviews. A Brentwood, Calif., artist made the mistake of being too trusting. She ended up with someone she describes as “a drug addict who moonlighted as a stripper and showed up coked up to take care of my son.” (Confided the 3-year-old: “She leaves me alone and goes off to talk to men.”) Her next hire was a Scottish woman who had professional training as a nanny. “It was more expensive,” the artist says, “but worth it.” Although a reputable agency will screen candidates, you should still consider hiring an outside professional who specializes in background investigations to check driving, civil, and criminal records. If you are hiring an estate manager or executive housekeeper, include a credit check.

You might not completely trust the placement agency’s background checks, but you should be able to rely on it to assess the candidates’ skills. If the job includes caring for fine linens, silver, antiques, and paintings, for example, you want to feel confident that the applicant knows how to handle your belongings. “If you are a Park Avenue person or a Rockefeller, and this [applicant] has not worked in those types of households, you don’t know that he or she can handle your needs,” Bohme says.


Once you have communicated the specific duties you expect to be performed and have an understanding of what that will require in terms of hours and salary, the interviewing process can begin. Bear in mind that the interview is an audition for both you and the candidates; you are being judged on how you will treat your domestic help.

Sometimes you simply will not feel comfortable with a candidate—or he or she with you—and the choice not to hire will be an easy one. But it is more likely that you will experience some indecision. Jean Birtles, the director of Top Notch Nannies, which supplies caregivers in London, advises clients to trust their instincts. “I know experience and qualifications are important,” says Birtles, “but sincerity, caring, kindness, and serenity are important, too. Look for somebody wholesome.” While a well-groomed appearance is an initial indication that a candidate is competent, looks can be deceiving. Birtles suggests speaking with a prospective nanny long enough to discern how seriously she (the vast majority of nannies are female) regards her job and, more important, if she truly loves children. “You can tell as they walk through the door: ‘Uh-oh. More interested in bright lights and clubbing.’ ” Ask specifics about previous jobs, and be concerned if she cannot provide detailed answers. Also, pose questions about what the candidate would do in specific situations (the baby refuses to eat, for example) and ask what attracts her to the job. If two-month vacations in Monte Carlo and use of the Mercedes top the list, you could have a problem.

Marcus, the former estate manager, considers an applicant’s amount of time spent with a previous employer an essential clue about how he or she might perform in the future. Look for candidates with a minimum of three to four years at a previous position, and always ask why they left, he says. If they proceed to detail their list of grievances, reject them. “All of a sudden Dolly’s talking about Mrs. So-and-So’s threadbare drawers,” he says. “You don’t want your dirty laundry being aired before the next couple.”


Along those same lines, you cannot rely on positive references from former employers to ensure a trustworthy and valuable worker. Sometimes, an exemplary review may be written for a less-than-satisfactory worker because the writer does not want to jeopardize a person’s career—or, because he or she wants to avoid the possibility of being sued.

If you are seriously considering a candidate, follow up with telephone calls to the references he or she supplies. Kellner suggests asking open-ended questions such as, “Is there anything I need to know?” If a former employer replies, “She’s fine,” Kellner stops cold. “I have never had anyone say, ‘Send me someone who’s fine,’ ” she says. Bohme agrees that a short conversation with a previous employer can yield information you otherwise might not learn until it is too late. “You call and find out that Mary was late all the time or wasn’t active with the kids,” he says.
After obvious mismatches have been ruled out, you must ascertain in one or two interviews whether you and your top candidate share that intangible connection called chemistry. Despite his caller’s intention of paying a fraction of the going rate for a private chef, Minuto knows that money would have been the least of the problems with anyone she hired. “If the chemistry isn’t there,” says Minuto, “it ain’t gonna work.” However, if the chemistry is right, says Dora Renet, proprietor of International Services Agency in Beverly Hills, there are really no secrets to retaining good people. For her, the formula is simple: “Treat people well and don’t overwork them,” she says. “We have people we have placed, and we have forgotten what they look like, it was so long ago.”

Finally, be patient. Just as relationships between friends and lovers are allowed to bloom before each begins addressing the more intimate aspects of each other’s lives, a new live-in butler, cook, nanny, or maid should not be expected to immediately learn (better yet, sense) all of the disparate tastes and personalities within your family.


Following this settling-in period, the employer-employee relationship is like any other, says Kellner: “It needs to be worked on and maintained.” However, after a month or so, you may conclude that the relationship simply will not work. Reputable agencies will honor a commitment and supply a replacement. At the Adele Poston Agency, for instance, if the fee has been paid by the fourth week of employment, the agency will find a replacement free of charge for up to three months. “No one can guarantee personality,” says Bohme. “But then we can’t guarantee the personality of the client, either.”

Adele Poston Agency, 212.879.7474, www.adelepostonagency.com;
Hampton Domestics, 866.561.2711, 631.725.1527, www.hamptondomestics.com;
International Services Agency, 310.278.4470;
Robin Kellner Agency, 212.997.4151, www.robinkellner.com;
Top Notch Nannies, +44.2072.592.626, www.topnotchnannies.com

Who’s Who in the House Before contacting a domestic placement agency, you will want to possess some knowledge of the various staff positions and their corresponding job descriptions. The Lindquist Group uses these common titles.

· Butler—supervises household staff
· Caretaker—responsible for indoor and outdoor maintenance
· Chef/Cook—prepares meals for family and social events
· Couple—typically a husband and wife who are responsible for duties outside and inside the home, respectively

· Day Worker—performs daily tasks such as cleaning and laundry
· Estate Manager (also house manager or majordomo)—manages staff in one or more homes
· Governess—cares for children and manages homework, play dates, clothes shopping
· Household Supervisor—full-time position responsible for cooking, cleaning, running errands, and overseeing additional staff
· Lady’s Maid/Valet—keeps the homeowners’ clothing in order, helps them dress and undress, draws the evening baths
· Mother’s Helper—assists with child care and performs light housework
· Nanny—coordinates children’s activities, prepares their meals, keeps play areas tidy
· Personal Assistant (also social secretary)—manages social and professional demands on employer

The Interview Placement agencies will present you with candidates who can meet your household’s needs; however, it is ultimately your responsibility to determine which person is the best fit for you. Adhering to these interviewing guidelines can assist you in that process.

Be honest about your needs. Describe the duties and living conditions in detail. Ask for and listen to the potential employee’s reaction so that you can assess his or her comfort level with your demands.

Ask about her childhood. If you are hiring a nanny, inquire about personal childhood experiences, such as how she played and was disciplined.


Put it in writing. When you warm to an applicant, present him or her with a written list that spells out duties, as well as hours, vacations, and overtime compensation. Be prepared to discuss concerns at a second meeting, and pay attention to how willing the candidate is to discuss potential problems.

Look for an experienced applicant. A mature person knows that all jobs have ups and downs. He or she will be more likely to want to work through inevitable rough spots.

Trust your instincts. If something indefinable bothers you about an applicant, listen to that feeling. But if you feel that certain chemistry, you are more likely to be comfortable having him or her live in your home.

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