Not too long ago, I shared my “10 commandments on hiring a maid” on facebook and it generated quite a lot of feedback from both supporters and naysayers. Majority – I would say, supported my views; while a minority claimed that the list was too harsh. After gathering feedback on these 10 commandments, I decided to rewrite these rules in more palatable terms and renamed it as “10 common mistakes made by first time maid employers“. This time I am posting it on my blog so that it is much easier to share and used for future reference.
I have gained much experience from hiring three domestic helpers over the span of one and a half years. I think it is useful to consolidate all these ideas into a list and share them with first time employers so that we can learn from our past mistakes and not to repeat them again. Many a time, I read about helpless employers having to deal with various maid issues and not knowing what to do. Recently, I have come across one astonishing case – a domestic helper feigning death to get admitted to the hospital while threatening for a chance to transfer to another family. The poor employer who could not deal with the hefty bill of admitting a foreign domestic worker in our local restructured hospital had to accede to her demands to bail themselves out.
Many families hire maids out of necessity to help them lighten their domestic load. While I believe that we should treat these hired help in as much as a humane way as possible – providing food, shelter and adequate monetary compensation, we should not let them run all over our shoulders. It is utmost important to build a good employer-maid relationship right from the beginning. If you give too much leeway from the start, it may be difficult to stand your ground in the future. As of now, I am still very much happy without a maid. I hope my list will guide new employers what to look out for and help them make better decisions when they start to hire a new domestic helper.
Mistake 1 – Choosing the wrong maid agency
This is a fatal mistake. You will most probably get a wrong candidate if you start your selection at an agency whose priority is all about the maid’s welfare and not yours. It is of course important to consider the welfare of both the employer and the maid but if her welfare outweighs that of yours, then it is wrong. I have encountered maid agents whose first question is not to ask me what kind of maid I need for my household, but rather what material comforts I can provide for the maid – such as their own private room and shower, every Sunday off (including Public Holidays) and 24/7 handphone usage. One agent told me in my face that since I am not ang moh (colloquialism for a Caucasian expat), they cannot help me look for a maid from their database. Some agents also tell me that their maids are not interested in working for landed properties. Typically, these maid agencies exist along the stretch of Orchard Road where experienced maids approach them to be “transferred” to a better family with lighter workload. Most of these agencies are run by foreigners (likely in their own nationality) as well. Be wary of the terms in the employment contract from such agencies; usually they are not in your favour – look out for long notice period you need to give the maid when you want to terminate her services (Usually it is 7 days notice period; but in reality many employers just tell them to pack up and go) and how much refund you can get back if either party terminates the contract. Finally, do note that there is no such thing as “unlimited replacements within one year” – most agencies will turn up their noses or try to make things difficult for you if you keep going back to them for replacements.
Mistake 2 – Taking a transfer maid
Not all transfer maids are bad, but I feel that it is too much of a risk to hire one who decided to change employer a few months into their contract. There must be some reason why the maid decides not to work for the earlier household or why the previous employer decides to transfer her out. It takes at least 2-3 months to train a maid for a new household so nobody would want to waste time retraining a new maid unless there is a critical issue with the maid. Unless you are able to speak to the previous employer to establish a genuine cause for transfer, try not to take this risk upon yourself. A lot of the times, the agency will deny you of the chance to speak to the previous employer, giving you the excuse that the grandmother has passed on or the family has already emigrated. Surely there is somebody whom you can speak to and who is still around. At the end of the day, there are plenty of fresh or experienced maids (who have completed contracts) around, so it is better to place your risks elsewhere.
Mistake 3 – Not judging a book by its appearance
The age old saying of “Judging a book by its appearance” has some truths in it. When you look at the profile of a potential maid, check out the way she is dressed, her eyebrows, her hair and look at her nails. First appearance counts. A heavily maked-up domestic helper may work for some households but it may not work for you. If she gives you the impression that she is not here to look after your baby or your frail 80 year old grand-mother, she probably isn’t. Often, our instincts are correct. When you are at home, do a random check of her profile on facebook – you may be amazed at your findings. Once, I saw a potential candidate posing in front of the mirror right in her ex-employers’ room. The ex-employers’ wedding photo was clearly seen in the background… and you wonder why they never have better sense than to take such a photo and post it online.
Mistake 4 – Not taking stock of what they bring into the house
Now, this may sound controversial but I would think it is critical that as house-owners you are fully responsible for what your domestic helpers bring along in their luggage. It is a good practice to note what belongs to her and what does not in cases of dispute for theft or any other investigations. You may raise your eyebrows if you see sexy clothing (for their off days?), potential weapons (to use against you?) or lots of valuables (from another household?). I think you should tell them honestly that you would like to go through her belongings and give a reason why you are doing it. Those who have nothing to hide will not have any reservations of letting you know what is inside their luggage.
Mistake 5 – Not having any house rules
Having house rules set your expectations of her for the 2 year employment. It is akin to having an employment handbook which states what are the boundaries she should not cross. Draw up a list and translate in her native language (if she cannot read English). A basic one should include her daily working hours, notes on keeping your house secure and locked, usage of handphone, working attire, personal hygiene, honesty, rules on photography around the house, no access zone, basic safety awareness especially for young children and elderly etc. Get her to acknowledge these house rules and sign on the first day of work.
Mistake 6 – Not having any daily or weekly roster
A weekly roster is essential to guide new helpers on what are the tasks to be completed on a daily or a weekly basis. If possible, be as specific as you can and list out what you need her to do at different timings of the day and give her a reasonable amount of time to complete her work. It is common for work place to set out quarterly targets and goals. Likewise, a domestic helper needs to have daily and weekly goals. Without such goals, it would be left entirely up to her own discretion; and it is human nature to skip certain tasks or take short cuts as time goes by. Having a roster also take away the ambiguity and makes lives easier for both parties.
Mistake 7 – Not installing CCTV in the house
CCTV acts as a strong deterrent and serves as a good evidence for you if anything goes wrong. You would be able to monitor their behaviour with young children or the elderly when you are not at home. Often, many cases of child or elderly abuse are picked up by CCTV recordings. It is not an infringement of privacy if the CCTVs are strategically positioned in common areas of the house. Besides, it is quite a common to have CCTVs installed in our workplaces as well. The recordings will stand in your favour if you have been wrongly accused of abusing the maid or if there is some dispute of who left the soup overnight without keeping it in the fridge – you get what I mean.
Mistake 8 – Not having an alpha figure in the house
Every household needs a leader. In this case, I believe an employer should be a leader and not a friend. This is a golden rule which must not be broken. You need to correct your subordinate when things go wrong and not smile it away like childhood friends. When boundaries between a work relationship blur into a friendship, it will be increasingly difficult to correct negative behaviour. You have to assert your authority as an employer so that your helper knows you mean business. Simple behaviour that reinforces your role as a boss include asking her to open the door for you and help you with your groceries when you are back. When you are out with her during a meal, you should order the food for her. When you give instructions, expect her to listen attentively and not face her back or walk away from you.
Mistake 9 – Putting your valuable items at risk
All human beings break things at one point or another in their time. If you have valuable china or expensive kitchen knives and you cannot bear to have them broken, it is best to have them replaced to a cheaper set when you hire a maid. Some employers allow their maids to wash their expensive designer clothes, only to find them ruined at the end of the day. They deserve it right? You will need to assess your risks you want to take. If the risks are high, please send them to a laundry shop instead of asking your maid to wash it. And yes, if you have valuable items such as jewelry or watches, do keep them away as well. If they go missing, you may not be able to find it again – or maybe your CCTV recording may help?
In my case, I told my domestic helper not to wipe my ornaments in her first week of work, but she insisted and did it without my instructions – hoping to impress me maybe? And she didn’t notice there were two porcelain birds sitting on top of one of my book shelves. One clean sweep was enough to send one crashing to the floor and it broke its neck. It is really such a heartache for me, especially when they come in a pair!
Moral of my story: It is inevitable that domestic helpers will damage items during cleaning or washing – it is just a matter of time. You may want to read my other post on “Household items you should store away from fresh domestic helpers”.
Mistake 10 – No performance appraisal
All humans like to work in a system which reward us for the positive work that we do. So having a system to reward domestic helpers may be necessary – as a positive reinforcement. It is usually more useful to set the tone for such a reward system right from the beginning so that they have goals to work towards. For example, you can promise to treat her to a nice meal at the end of the month if she fulfills a certain requirement which you set her out to do. Likewise, if she keeps repeating the same mistake, you can record it down in a book and get her to acknowledge what she has done wrong and urge her not to repeat it again – as a negative reinforcement. Be upfront on your expectations of her. Make known to her that you would not tolerate her stealing things, telling lies or abusing your children – these acts will put her into a position of “no transfer”. Many employers do not know that they can feedback to MOM about their current domestic helper and upon receiving such feedback, MOM would alert new potential employers that a previous employer would gladly speak to them and tell them about the maid’s work performance during her time in her household. This may deter the potential employer from hiring the maid in question.
In order to have a successful relationship with a domestic helper, you would need to be a good employer as well. Often, human relationships are of a complex nature. It is always much easier to reflect retrospectively after the mistakes have been committed. I hope you have gained a valuable lesson from my list above. Best of luck!