I’ve never really hired household help before. Sure, I had a part-time maid in Egypt, but I never actually went through “the hiring process” with her. She started working for friends, taking care of their cats while they were away, at the recommendation of their full-time maid. Then, on the recommendation of those friends and their maid, she started working part-time for another friend. Add that friend’s recommendation, and she started working part-time for another friend. Then I became pregnant, had some difficulty, went on bed rest, and needed someone to clean my house now. So we hired her, after meeting her once or twice when she was working for friends, without even an interview other than a quick phone conversation: "When can you come? (Thursday mornings) We'll pay you $X (as you like, Ma'am)." She worked out great for us, and when we left Egypt, another friend who had just arrived hired her solely on the basis of our recommendation. Cycle completed.
No such cycle here in Cambodia. Sure, one embassy contact recommended her cook (who works from well before dawn until mid-morning for her) as our afternoon housekeeper and babysitter. But her cook, who in most respects sounded like she was sent from Heaven above, is going to be taking some significant time off early next year for childbirth. Now, I hate the idea of discriminating against pregnant women—but at the same time, I know that (1) I don’t want to pay for maternity leave for someone I just hired (if she’d been working for me and then become pregnant, it would be different because I’d have a relationship with her); (2) I don’t want to become dependent on someone and then have to do without, especially the babysitting functions if I’m taking language classes; (3) I can’t afford to give her paid time off and hire someone else to replace her at the same time; and (4) with Alexa still in “I need Mommy and only Mommy and sometimes Daddy” mode, I certainly don’t want to get her used to someone, have that person leave (being temporarily replaced or not), and then have her get used to that someone (or someone else) all over again. So, however not politically correct our decision was, Jeff and I decided to pass on this woman, however perfect she sounded in other ways.
But that left me without any recommendations from friends, as I really don’t know anyone here. And then, just to make it fun, we found out that the Khmer language class that I really wanted to take was starting—it started Tuesday, after we found out Friday! I had no babysitter, because I was counting on my eventual housekeeper to be a sometimes-babysitter when necessary. I had not expected the class to start for at least another couple of weeks, and I was caught completely unprepared.To make matters worse, even if I found and hired someone immediately, I knew that she couldn’t start working until the Regional Security Office had completed a background check on her and cleared her to be in my home unescorted. I have no idea how long that process takes here—to a large degree, it depends on how organized and responsive the local police force is, as our investigators have to get any pertinent records from them.
So the search was on! I quickly posted an ad on the Cambodia Parents Network (CPN) group on Yahoo. I shot off an email to the embassy’s CLO (Community Liaison Office) to ask if they had any leads for me, even for just a temporary solution, like a family with kids Alexa’s age who wouldn’t mind if she joined their kids for a couple of afternoons a week until we hired someone. I received an almost immediate reply that the CLO would check her sources and get back to me.
Then I saw an ad on CPN that someone’s part time housekeeper was looking for afternoon work. She spoke English, cleaned well, could cook, and did some babysitting. She sounded like a gift from God just for me! Even though she wouldn’t be RSO-cleared already, I figured if I hired her long-term, I could come up with a temporary solution until she got her clearance. I called her and set up an interview for Saturday morning. Then I set to work, looking online for what exactly I should be asking a potential housekeeper during an interview.
After discarding most of the suggested questions (applicable to hotel maids more than privately employed housekeepers) and adding a few from “questions to ask your potential nanny” sites, I developed a list that I thought would give us all the information we needed to make a decision. Not that I needed any more than I already had, though, right? I mean, she cleans, cooks, cares for kids, and speaks English. And she’s available in the afternoons, when I need someone.Surely this was the woman!
She arrived 5 minutes early for her interview (“Perfect interview protocol!” I whispered excitedly to Jeff as I peeked out the window and saw the guard letting her in the gate), dressed appropriately in jeans and a nice shirt. She approached the door, took off her shoes, and entered. She seemed nervous, which was understandable. And the conversation started.
I told her what we were looking for, what her responsibilities would be, and what we would pay. Then I started asking questions. And asking them again, phrased differently. And again, phrased in yet another way, and more slowly this time. Then Jeff tried. Twice. We finally pieced together what we believed was a reasonable approximation of her job history. It was not helped by the lack of resume or letters of reference, although her first employer, for whom she’d worked for two years before the employer left Cambodia, had recently returned, and she promised us their phone number once she’d had lunch with them that day. Then we moved on to the more specific questions, which she answered mostly the way we wanted her to, but … again, only after much rephrasing and repeating.
After she left, it didn’t take Jeff and me long to agree: we’d keep looking. I did email the person who had originally posted the ad, and received a more detailed, glowing recommendation. I’m sure she would have done the work well, and I’m sure she’s a sweet girl. But I need to be able to communicate effectively with my housekeeper. And come to think of it, we never did get that phone number she promised us. So we kept looking.
The next morning, we received a phone call from a Cambodian woman who had seen my ad on CPN. She agreed to come in that afternoon for an interview.
I can’t say exactly what gave me pause about this woman. Jeff was all for hiring her. She had experience as a house cleaner and as a nanny. Her English was excellent. She had written recommendations (although, come to think of it, the one I emailed for confirmation never replied). I just had a hesitancy about her. Maybe it was that, after working as a nanny, she’d worked as a dealer at a casino and then as a translator for a company that recently went out of business, putting her back in the employment market. Jeff said that she probably wanted to go back to domestic employment because if she got on with an embassy family, she’d likely be set for many years, but I disagree. I think she left this line of work for a reason, and I think she’d leave it again. And, honestly, I didn’t like that every question she asked us had to do with money and holiday/vacation time. So we agreed that she was the one if no one else better came along quickly, but that I’d keep looking in the meantime.
On Monday, I received a response from the CLO. The housekeeper/cook/shopper of someone who’d had to curtail for medical reasons was still available. She forwarded me the recommendation. This woman sounded very good, but not perfect. She cleans, cooks, shops, and keeps good records of her expenditures so you can see she isn’t cheating you. She has good English. Because she’d worked for an embassy family, I assumed she had RSO clearance already. But she prefers a family with no children, or older children. I thought, maybe, even if she doesn’t want to work for us permanently because Alexa is so young, maybe she’d be willing to work for us temporarily, or even just babysit temporarily, until we can hire someone else.
I shot off an email to her previous employer, asking for her contact information. I didn’t expect a reply until the next day, because of the time difference, but I received one in less than an hour. The glowing recommendation continued. He explained that she didn’t want to work with young children because she has another job, one that requires her to go in only as needed, for short times, and if she’s caring for young children, she can’t go. Her arrangement with him was that she could go to her other job as needed during the day, so long as she did all of the work he needed, too. That sounded reasonable, and made me more comfortable with asking her to babysit for short times—the problem wasn’t that she doesn’t like children, and since I don’t want a full time nanny, the risk to her other job wouldn’t be as great. I called her and set up an interview for that evening.
When she came in, I almost immediately felt comfortable with her. Her English is excellent, although she did ask me to slow down a little so she could understand me better. She explained about her other job, apparently taking fingerprints for one of the Cambodian government ministries on an as-needed basis. She gets paid, but it isn’t enough to support her family, although I can see why she wouldn’t want to let it go, as she’s in a line of work without a great deal of long-term stability. She did ask about time off, but she was quick to explain that it was only because she has a 5-year-old son, and an elderly mother, and if one of them needs to go to the doctor, there isn’t anyone else who can take them. I explained what Jeff and I already had decided about paid holidays, vacation days, and sick leave, and she seemed happy with it. She was happy with the salary we were offering, although she did ask to be paid monthly instead of weekly, so she wouldn’t spend it all too fast. She was upfront about what she could and couldn't do, what she had experience doing and what she'd never done before. When it came right down to it, I liked her and felt comfortable with the idea of having her in my home.
We hired her on the spot. Jeff had discovered that she didn’t have RSO clearance, as we’d assumed, so we are waiting for that before she actually starts work. (Alexa has gone to two Khmer classes with me and has been less of a distraction than I feared. Our teacher told us yesterday that she looks like a doll.) It turns out that although she’s worked for two previous embassy families, the previous RSO didn’t keep as careful records as the current RSO does, so even though her name was submitted and approved, there aren’t any records. The current RSO had to start from scratch with her investigation. But we’re hoping she’ll be able to start next week.
And then we’ll see how good—or bad—my instincts are when it comes to hiring help.