How to find the perfect househelp

By Tricia Wanjala

When I was expecting my firstborn, I didn’t realise the amount of work involved in caring for a child. I glibly assumed that I’d be able to handle the housework while the baby was asleep. Needless to say, I was in for a rude shock. A couple of weeks later I threw in the towel and looked for a house help. Thus began my long search for a woman who would eventually be a good match for our household. I know I am not alone in my experience of having to suffer through a process of trial and error before finding such a person. Many Instinct readers have shared their views, both horror stories and success stories. So we decided to investigate and try to figure out the formula. How do you find "the perfect househelp?"

Photo: Lenny Taabu/Posed by Models/Standard

First you must understand that nobody is perfect. Every domestic worker is a human being, with strong points and failings. It is important not to be a perfectionist, just as it is important not to be too lax with your expectations, thus letting your home fall into disarray. Some things might appear obvious to you, but through experience many have learned to state the obvious, even though it may appear to be common sense. Many househelps complain of a lack of clear direction and feedback. So for the working relationship to succeed, some employers may literally have to spell out a lot of things, since each household is different. Marjorie says. "If you don’t train her to assume the role you require of her, you will find yourself getting irritated a lot."

A good househelp, is basically one who fulfills her duties well, is honest, diligent, humble and pleasant. When we interviewed Anne Wanjiru, who runs Housepitality Training Centre, she mentioned that when you get such a good househelp, it is important to dignify them because theirs is a very important job. In her words, "employers should not look down on girls or mistreat them, because you’re leaving them in charge of your house and your children". Few things are more precious than our children and our homes. Part of getting a good househelp, is giving this individual the respect she deserves, that merits her being entrusted with your most precious possessions. So at the interview stage, it is up to you to select an individual you feel you can respect and trust.

Now with the interview, it is really what I would call a gamble. You may end up with the perfect fit, or you might make a horrendous mistake. We will share the points we learned from our experts on how to hone your interview technique in order to sieve out effectively "the wheat from the chaff", how to differentiate the impostors from the genuine. Grace, an experienced housekeeper and former bureau owner, has interviewed and placed numerous girls with employers. Her advice is: "Don’t just ask them the usual CV questions. Ask for specifics or ask the same question in a different manner. Watch their body language and their response. Things like a shift in eye gaze or fumbling with replies, and mixing up dates can quickly alert you to a potential liar." She also adds that it is important to ask them what their goals are.

Most people do not want to be domestic workers all their lives, and ironically, these tend to be the best employees because their goals keep them focused. She cautions against hiring those who lack purposeful goals, "If you ask them why they are in the profession of doing housework and they reply that it is because they have nothing better to do, you ought to think twice before hiring. Those who say that it is to feed their children, or support and aging parent, or saving up to start a business, are usually more likely to stick it through once they have been hired, even in the face of difficulties."

Lastly, she advises that, "when you ask them why they left their previous employment, be very wary of those who say that their employer was given a job transfer. If they then seem reluctant to give you the contact information of that previous employer, very likely, the story is fake."

Identity card

We also obtained more tips on conducting a successful interview from Judy, former banker and owner of Tahidi Bureau Services. "The domestic worker must produce an ID or a waiting card if it is lost. However sometimes even an ID doesn’t help. I had a girl who cleaned out my house and carried everything with thieves, and eight years later her ID is still with me. Some just report it as lost and obtain another one."

She mentioned that a very important detail to ask for is "the contact of a next of kin. If they say they are staying with a sister or a brother or an aunt, get that person’s number and ascertain where they live." Often, such relatives are happy to provide details about the help. Also, she adds that references don’t often work. Sometimes they may get a friend or neighbour to say that they are a former employer and provide the number.

It is more helpful she says, to "look at the appearance of the girl. Her personal dress and grooming, neatness and confidence are often good indicators of how well they will work. If she can’t keep herself clean, how will she keep your house clean?" Judy also places importance on how the interviewee interacts with the interviewer. "Does she smile? Does she greet you? If you have a child, does she try to interact with the child? Does she make eye-contact? All these are clues as to whether or not she is a good candidate for the job."

Communicate clearly

Once you get through the interview portion, closely observe the new employee for probation period — whether it is from one week to two months. Here is your chance not only to detect if the choice was a poor one, but to make it work if it was a good one. To have a good maid, you must also be a good employer. During this time, Judy emphasises that you must communicate clearly what you want from her in terms of performance and boundaries. "If you want her to mop under the table, show her, even if by pointing. Don’t get upset because you didn’t tell her and she didn’t know. Explain from day one that, for example, the "apples are for the baby, and the mangoes are for Daddy, but you can eat the bananas."

Wambui, an employer, says that with day-by-day or commuter house helps, "You can first test their honesty by leaving out a few valuable items such as some coins or jewellery (which you won’t mind losing), to see if they go missing. Also you could place a few items strategically in such a way that if your instructions to clean that area have not been followed, you will be able to tell."

Enough food

With home-stay or live-in househelps, Esther, manager of Housepitality Training Centre, also agreed with Judy in a vital factor that affects the morale of your domestic employee "Give them a day off, and paid annual leave." Negotiate what terms will work for the both of you, but be sure to outline clearly the scope of their duties. Judy says "If you promise them a pay increment after a certain time period, be sure to keep your promise. And please, give her enough food. Nobody can work well on an empty stomach. Serve her and then put the food on the table, rather than letting her wait until everybody has eaten."

Lastly, if you feel you do not have the time or the patience to train an incumbent domestic worker, your best bet would be to pay a little more and hire one who is already trained. There are a number of institutions that train househelps in everything from fine cookery to etiquette, first aid and childcare. Most of them charge the employer a fee for the girl’s training after the employer has employed a graduate of their course.

The advantage, though, is that you have an employee who already is highly skilled, motivated and professional in their work. There are many institutions that offer this service here in Nairobi. Regardless of whether you get a trained or untrained employee, experienced or inexperienced, Form Four leaver or Standard Seven dropout, what counts at the end of the day is her attitude. Some families, especially those with male children, opt to hire male househelps. Either way, the principles we uncovered apply in finding a good domestic worker, male or female.

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