Living with someone is probably one of the biggest challenges we will face in life. Whether it’s fellow boarding-school students, flat-mates, partners, children or in-laws, all bring their own issues with them. Everyone enjoys having visitors, but after a week, most of us are quite happy to see them go. So why would it be any different with a live-in employee? Rebecca Bisset shares her advice about employing and living with a helper.
Most people, including me, arrive in Singapore vowing never to have a live-in helper. Needless to say, after moving in to a house with white tiles, and with a four-month-old and a toddler underfoot, my attitude changed.
It took about four weeks before we started looking up maid agency phone numbers. Nearly 17 years later, the challenge of home help is still there for me. (“Yikes,” you may be thinking, “she must be really difficult!”)
The situation is the same for everyone: you employ someone based on only one or two interviews, and then you have to live in close proximity with them for two years and trust them with your children, your belongings and your home.
Over the years, I have gone through most scenarios with my helpers, both good and bad. This includes hiring someone who used to nip out during the day with a bottle of our booze to see her boyfriend, and who left with an entire suitcase full of our belongings.
I’ve heard enough similar stories over the years to fill a book. One friend’s domestic helper was “on the game” with the construction workers from the neighbouring plot, while her toddlers were locked in the room next door.
I have tried part-time cleaners too. This works pretty well unless you have animals or younger children. I didn’t have a live-in helper when our dog had four puppies and it wasn’t pretty!
On a positive note, for the past six years I have lived harmoniously and drama-free with two different helpers.
Here’s just some of the good stuff about live-in help.
- You have total freedom to go out whenever you feel like it – go on holidays, or away for weekends at the drop of a hat, and not worry about the cat, the fish or the washing-up.
- You eat a lot healthier because a helper will take the time to chop fresh vegetables, instead of throwing in a tin of peas!
- Everything is washed and ironed, and that’s marvellous.
Tried and tested tips
- You’re the employer, not a friend, but show empathy for the helper’s situation too. They’re away from their families and in a stranger’s home.
- Don’t overreact. You don’t want them hiding things from you because they’re scared. But also, you don’t want to tiptoe around them either. (With two of my helpers, I ended up being scared of asking them to do anything!)
- You aren’t superwoman, and neither are they. They can’t be perfect at cooking, childcare and cleaning. Learn to overlook some things, and concentrate on what you are each better at.
- Don’t flaunt material things. Keep bank accounts out of the way if possible. There’s a huge financial disparity, so be sensitive about it.
The interview: what to ask
Once you’ve decided to employ a helper, you’ll need to consider interviewing several candidates. Asking these 10 questions should help you make a choice.
1. Ask for references, and make sure you can speak to her previous employer – don’t take written references as gospel.
2. Has she taken any first aid courses? If so, when and with whom? If she hasn’t, does she know any basic first aid? (Ask her to talk you through any procedures she does know.)
3. What’s her favourite “go to” recipe? Ask her to talk you through how she makes it. This means you can check her spoken English as well.
4. If she’s transferring from one family in Singapore to another, ask why. If she has transferred from a series of employers, without good reason (for example, the family was leaving Singapore) and without finishing her contracts, thoroughly investigate why.
5. Is she married, and does she have children? Her personal situation will have some bearing on her skill set.
6. Find out why she is doing this job. Is she working to support her family back home? Does she have plans to go back at a certain point? Is she building up to starting a business when she does go home? Finding out about her future plans means that if you do employ her you can help support her, and both of you can work out an exit plan.
7. Asking typical questions like “Do you like children?” or about cleaning and ironing are pretty pointless. Instead, ask her what she feels her strengths are; what is she best at? Does she work to a cleaning schedule, and if so can she give you a quick rundown of it?
8. If you have young kids, find out what nursery rhymes she knows, what games she likes to play with children, and recipes she can cook for them.
9. Set ground rules and make it clear what would be a deal breaker – for example, stealing from you, or asking for money advances.
10. How would she discipline a child?
And finally, here’s a bonus point: trust your instincts, go with your gut, whatever you want to call it. If you have a bad feeling, walk away, and if you have a good feeling, go for it.