Hiring the Right Domestic Help

I was recently asked to write guest columns for a newly launched expat site, Expatica South Africa, and my first post is about domestic help in South Africa. In the process of researching this topic, I asked some friends about their advice and experiences, and my fellow expat and friend Dominique answered with some great advice specifically on what to look for when hiring domestic help. I’d like to share her observations here:

Bearing in mind that it’s a difficult and painful experience to fire staff in South Africa, the best thing to do is to make sure you hire the right people from the start.

I would focus on the following when hiring house help:

1. Make a list of all the things you would require from your domestic worker. Will she clean the garage? Is she expected to take care of the kids? Pick them up from school? To be available on weekends? Which working hours suit you? Do you expect your domestic worker to do all the housework? Would you be exasperated if the kids’ toys are not packed away at the end of the day, or will you be happy enough to just tidy them away yourself? Asking yourself these questions helps you define your domestic worker’s role in the house. When you know what that role is, it’s easier to make it known to her.

2. Make a list of traits you would prefer in someone working in your home: Would you like someone bubbly, talkative, energetic? Younger or older? A disciplinarian? Someone who is quiet and just gets on with the job? Someone who follows instructions, or someone who will follow their initiative?

3. Interview a selection of people and choose the ones you like the most to have a trial run working in your home. You would pay them per day that they work. Make it clear that this is a trial and that you will let the know if they have the job based on your assessment. I would suggest that they come and work in your house at least twice before you make a decision. Generally people do their best on the first day. If nothing else, that first day is an indication of the maximum that person is able to do in your home. Realistically it cannot be expected that someone works with ‘first day’ speed, thoroughness and energy all the time, but  It is a reference point later on of the maximum you can expect from your staff, in unique situations – like if you have guests leaving one day and the next lot arriving the following day and a major clean-up needs to happen. Something else to look out for in the trial working days is if the person is able and willing to adjust to how you like things done in your home. Consider if it is a big issue for you if she does things differently to the way you would. Also guage her reaction when you tell her what to do, and when you correct her. I have had the experience of having someone telling me in the interview that it was important that I tell her if I was not happy with what she was doing, only to go into a sulk later on when I actually did so. Watch how she interacts with your children. Do they like her? Does she like them?  

4. For many expats in South Africa having house help is a novelty and a luxury and the feeling is to want to help someone that is seen as being disadvantaged. Most people do this by paying a starting salary that is much higher than the general norm. The salaries are low, particularly when converted to USD or Euros, but I would suggest paying the norm for at least the first three months, and making adjustments to a higher salary once a relationship is built between you. After three months you would also know if a higher salary is justifiable.

5. As expats we know that at some point we will be leaving the country and the person in our employ will be looking for a job. Our good references always help, but we also want to make a meaningful change for the better in our domestic workers’ lives.  Friends of mine did this in a wonderful way. When they hired their domestic they put money aside for her every month, and when they left a few years later, they used the money to buy her a house. I think knowing that they were doing this for her meant that they did not feel obliged to give money for various other purposes ( family commitments, funerals, travel etc).