A helping hand: The expert’s guide to hiring domestic staff

12 May 2022 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Luxury London

In need of a stellar chef or exceptional au pair? The legal experts from Stewarts guide us through the dos and don’ts of hiring home help

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Whether it’s a large family or a career that means you’re constantly on the go, having reliable, trustworthy and capable domestic help can be the difference between chaos and calm when it comes to your personal life. But, whether you’re looking for a personal chef, a full-time nanny, gardener or housekeeper, it’s important to remember that a unique employer-employee relationship comes with personal staff.

Should you find someone brilliant you could be on track for a lifetime of seamless help but, should things go wrong, the highly personal nature of the employment can have serious consequences. It pays, then, to be prepared. Joseph Lappin and Charlie Thompson, partners in the Employment team at Stewarts, talk us through the dos and don’ts of hiring domestic staff.

Do have a structured recruitment process.

It may be tempting to save money by not involving an agency and instead relying on your network but bear in mind that an agency can provide an extra filter and layer of sophistication to the process. Agencies that specialise in domestic help will have seen it all so will be able to spot a red flag from a mile away while also giving you someone to complain to (and help get things back on course) should they go wrong.

Enlisting the help of an agency will also give you peace of mind that your staff have been well vetted and possess the necessary checks and qualifications, explains Lappin. “The type and number of qualifications employers might require domestic staff to have obtained will very much depend on the role being performed. It is becoming more common for nannies, for example, to have obtained childcare-related qualifications and most employers will expect nannies to have received some childcare training.”

“Qualifications are only part of the equation,” adds Thompson. “References from previous employers may be illuminating, as well as what the candidate says is the reason for them leaving their last role. Any successful candidate should also be subject to an initial trial period. It is common that you can identify early on whether you have recruited the right person, and the longer the employment continues, the more difficult it can become to resolve.”

Do have a proper contract

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when employing domestic staff is to agree to a casual arrangement where nothing is formally written down. Even if you know your employee well and consider them a friend, circumstances and relationships can change, so grey areas should be avoided at all costs. Like all jobs, basics such as working hours and pay are best made explicit, while you may also wish to address issues such as confidentiality, social media and use of personal devices during work hours for anyone whose place of work is also your home.

“For any member of staff, it is sensible to have an ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ plan,” explains Thompson. “If the employment terminates unexpectedly, there are practicalities which need to be addressed urgently – not just finding a replacement, but also ensuring that the departing staff member leaves smoothly and returns important items such as keys and security passes. It makes sense to have a checklist ready in advance.”

The situation can become even more delicate if your staff also live with you. In these situations, it can be easy for work and personal time to become blurred and for tensions to rise if expectations do not align. “If things are not working out, chances are you will not want [the staff member] in your property for a moment longer, but if it is also their ‘home’, it’s more complicated,” says Thompson. “Most importantly, you should ensure that you do not inadvertently give the staff member any legal entitlement to remain in the property after their employment terminates.”

Clear outlines in the employment contract, such as making it clear that living in the premises is a requirement of the job, rather than a perk, and stating that the right to occupy the premises ends when the employment ends will cover you here. As live-in staff will also have greater access to their employer’s private lives, and thus personal and confidential information, this should also be addressed in the contract.

“What amounts to ‘confidential information’ should be set out in clear terms in the contract. The contract should also make it clear that confidential information should not be disclosed by the employee to any third party or on any social media platform either during the employment relationship or after it has ended,” advises Lappin.

Do choose a lead employer

It may seem obvious for a couple to jointly employ staff but, if you’re hoping said staff will stay with you long-term, it’s important to consider what changes could occur in your family dynamic. For example, what will happen if you decide to divorce or one half of the couple moves to a different country for work? Thompson and Lappin advise that it can be common for domestic staff to get caught in the middle of couples who are separating so for the benefit of your workers and your family it is best to decide at the beginning what would happen in these circumstances.

Do consider any special requirements

On paper, the duties of a nanny, cook or cleaner may seem unambiguous but you may quickly find that situations arise that you had not previously considered. You should not, for example, rely on a nanny to babysit or do household chores unless stated in their job description. Asking them to do so once employed could lead to resentment and ultimately high staff turnover.

Many domestic employers may also expect their staff, particularly chefs and au pairs or tutors, to travel with them. Along with communicating this well in advance and ensuring your staff have all the necessary documents for travel, it is also vital that both parties are clear on what will be expected from staff while abroad.

“Foreign travel can sometimes involve a change in working pattern, so it is also vital to ensure that the parties are clear with each other about whether additional work on top of the normal working hours is required, and if so, how that will be paid,” explains Thompson. “If the staff member is required to work outside the UK for longer than a month, then you are legally required to set out in writing how long it will be, the currency they will be paid in and any additional remuneration or benefits applicable to the trip.”

Don’t keep quiet if you’re not happy

It is a sad inevitability that not every employment situation is going to work out. Whether it’s poor performance or just a straightforward personality clash, problems are bound to arise in even the most clearly defined working relationship. It is important, however, that you address any issues quickly and professionally. This not only gives staff a chance to rectify the problem but also prevents the situation from escalating any further.

It is also key that you understand what counts as a work-related issue. Blurred boundaries can be common in domestic arrangements but you must always recognise that your staff have lives outside of their employment and are free to live them as they see fit, within reason.

“It can sometimes be difficult to say clearly whether poor conduct outside of work can lawfully amount to misconduct in the eyes of the employer,” says Thompson. “It will always depend on the specific facts, including what the employee has done and also what job they do for the employer. However, in many cases, an employer can treat conduct outside of work as a disciplinary matter.

“The first thing to do is to take a step back and assess how serious the issue is – is it something that can be resolved informally? Do you have evidence of poor conduct? How will the staff member react? It will also be sensible to see what the contract and staff policies (if any) say about conduct issues.”

Don’t assume you’re the perfect employer

Just as it is imperative that staff are made aware of any performance issues in a timely matter, it is also important that employees have a clearly defined process for addressing HR issues or grievances, be they with another employee or with you as their employer.

“All employers, regardless of size, should have a written grievance procedure. It is often preferable to see whether complaints can be resolved informally, but the written procedure provides a clear roadmap for everyone if that is not possible,” advises Thompson.

“When facing a complaint, it is helpful to be clear on not just what is being complained about but why. Is it in response to something else? Is it a way of seeking some leverage before initiating negotiations about an exit? Does the employee genuinely want to resolve the issue? Often it is a combination of all three.”

And while employment disputes arise at all sorts of companies and in all kinds of situations, it can be difficult not to take complaints personally or to allow your own feelings to bias disputes between two employees. Lappin recommends that, if a problem cannot be resolved informally, the best course of action is to appoint an HR consultant or employment lawyer who can investigate and make a judgement independently.

For more information and advice visit Stewarts at stewartslaw.com or call 0207 822 8000