HELP!

Help Image

Most expats are unaccustomed to having help around the house—unless we have children, or as we used to call our kids, “little indentured servants.”  Indian drivers, housekeepers, nannies, and cooks are foreign concepts—no pun intended.  But in India, most of the places you’ll consider living have servant’s quarters, a separate servant’s entrance, and potentially a separate elevator.  What is a normal part of affluent Indian life seems quite absurd to many of us.

Why do I need help?

There are two reasons to hire help in India: job creation and mental maintenance.  India’s middle class is growing, but a large percentage of the population remains poor and uneducated.  Hiring help provides jobs to people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.  People who might otherwise be unemployed due to a lack of education and opportunities can make a somewhat decent living working for an expat.

Having help around the house is also a matter of personal survival.  Believe it or not, there is a lot to do in India and it takes a long time to do it.  One might pop over to the local coffee shop for a planning session with other work-at-home parents in the West, but in India that “pop over” can easily mean a 45 minute commute each way—a mind-numbing sensory assault designed to drive even the most battle hardened expat to drink.  Then there’s the dust, which settles faster than snow during a North Dakota blizzard.  And let’s not forget the shear time suck that comes from living in India—a post-return beer after three or four hours running errands and grocery shopping is much more satisfying than washing and chopping vegetables.  Having at least part-time help is a sanity saver.

Who should I hire?

The most common domestic help hired in India are drivers, followed by housekeepers/maids, nannies, and finally cooks.  There are others employed either full-time, part-time, or ad hoc, such as gardeners or security, but drivers, maids, nannies and cooks are the big four for most expats.

Drivers

Your driver is your ambassador in India.  In a society with few enforced road rules, he adeptly navigates the chaos of Indian traffic, safely delivering his charges to their desired stops.  He locates obscure addresses, negotiates for goods, translates conversations, directs delivery people, purchases plants, walks the dog, picks up groceries, buys vodka, recommends alternatives, finds missing packages [link to previous story], and shuttles your drunk arse from pub to home.  A good driver works remarkable hours without complaint.  He is your ambassador in India. 

Maids

We may believe we are self-sufficient, independent, super heroes, but a few weeks in the harsh Indian environment quickly humbles even the toughest expat.  This isn’t the West, where a couple hours, a vacuum cleaner, and a cloth make short work of a 1,200 square foot flat.  It takes eons armed only with piles of rags, hard water, buckets, and a bundle of sticks for a broom to tame the dust in your 4,000 plus square foot Indian mansion.  Plus there is the laundry, dishes, vegetables, children, pets, volunteer activities, trip planning, home-based businesses, and who knows what else.  You are in India—you’ve earned the right to have someone help out around the house. 

Nannies

Expat life is ripe with opportunities to spend quality time with your children, but eventually conversations with a two-year old day-in-and-day-out dulls the senses.  India should include a chance for personal growth and development, meeting new people, and the occasional night out.  Unless you’re from Wisconsin or the Dakotas, you’re not going to want to drag little Emma and Liam along to the bar—plus, some Indian bars forbid it.  A nanny allows adults to act like their children on occasion.

Cooks

Cooks are likely the least hired of the household staff, their duties often combined with another role—maids sometimes double as cooks on occasion.  But there are reasons for a dedicated cook one or more days a week—such as two working spouses in the household.

Decent cooks know how to follow a recipe, which means they can cook more than Indian food.  In the very least, find someone who can cook a variety of Indian dishes—Punjabi cuisine is much different than Hyderabadi.

It is worth noting that some of the best Indian food we ate was prepared by our maid.

Hiring

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of it—hiring quality help in a country with 1.3 billion people is much more difficult than one might expect.  Nevertheless, having sold the idea that we need help, it would be irresponsible not to provide some guidance.

Note: Since your driver is your Ambassador, the intricacies of driver acquisition and maintenance will be discussed in a future post.

Research

There are a few questions you should consider asking yourself up front in order to prepare for the interview.  In some cases, the person you’re interviewing may ask or propose answers to these questions.  In other cases, it’s just nice to consider some things beforehand.

  • Can I get references from another expat, resident Indian, or my driver?
  • What do other people who are in similar situations (location, expectations, work hours, house size) pay?
  • How many and which days per week do I expect the person to work?
  • What start and stop times do I want the person to work each day?
  • What salary am I willing to pay?  Will I pay overtime after a certain number of hours per day?  What will be the overtime rate?
  • Will I pay a bonus for the most important holiday of the year (Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, Christmas)?  If so, how much?
  • When will I provide a raise?  How much?
  • Do I want a maid who can cook?  If so, how often do I want her to cook?
  • Will part of the job include caring for children?  Do I need a separate nanny or can I hire a maid/nanny?
  • Do I want references from the person I’m interviewing? 
  • Do I need someone who speaks English? (Remember, your Ambassador can translate needs for the rest of the staff—however, a housekeeper that understands passable English is helpful in an English-speaking household.  On the other hand, people generally pay a premium for English-speaking domestic help.)
Interviews

Interviewing is the best part of the hiring process, provided you have the right attitude.  As part of our full-time jobs my wife and I probably interviewed and hired hundreds of people in the US over the years—not one of those interviews as entertaining as people we interviewed in India.  Having a list of expectations in hand and a script to kick off the interview made it easier to focus on specifics, but there are some things for which it is impossible to prepare—like Indian logic.

Here are some questions to consider asking.  (Note: This is not the West—there is virtually no question you can’t ask during an interview.)

Where do you live?  (Important for understanding commute times and potential absences due to inclement weather.)

How will you get to work?  (The mode of transportation is a measure of reliability.  Ride-shares are dependent upon other people.  Public transportation can be unreliable.  Self transportation via scooter is a good answer, as is “on foot.”  None are determinants by themselves.)

Do you have children or grandchildren?  Are they in school?  Who will watch them while you are at work?  Will you need time off to take care of the children when they are not in school?  (The key takeaway here is you don’t want them bringing them to work when school is not in session.)

What religion are you?  What holidays do you need to take off work?  How much time is needed?  Do you require regular time off work for prayers and observances?  (We didn’t discriminate based on religion—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Klingon, Elven, and almost any other works for us.  We did however consider the impact said religion would have on our needs.  If belonging to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster involved having Friday’s off work to carbo load on pasta, it would likely not fit with our need to go to work that day.)

  • Can you work occasional Saturdays or Sundays if needed?
  • Are you afraid of dogs or cats—or birds (but that’s a story for another time)?
  • Can you cook?  What kinds of food?  Can you read a recipe?
  • Do you smoke?  (Possibly a concern if the smell bothers you.)
  • Are you currently working?  If so, when will that job be finished?
  • Do you have any other jobs?  What hours do you work in those jobs?
  • Have you worked for other expats?  Which countries were they from?  What were their names?  (The expat community is comparatively small and references are an easy way to get an idea about a person’s reputation.  But a good fit for one may not fit another.)
  • How long have you been out of work?  (If not currently working.)
  • Do you know how to use an iron?  (A burned shirt reminded us that “yes” does not necessarily mean yes, but it’s still worth asking.)
  • Do you know how to use a vacuum?  (Just because they know how to use it doesn’t mean they will us it.)
  • Can you provide references?

If you’ve taken the time to define your expectations, discuss them up front with the candidate.  The person you are interviewing will request what they want and you are free to consider those requests.  But asking the interviewee what they can or will do and accept is a mistake.  Indian’s are shrewd negotiators with thousands of years of haggling interwoven throughout their DNA.  Pitting non-Indian versus Indian in a negotiation is like sending Teletubbies to battle the Huns.  Interview, evaluate, and offer—but don’t negotiate.

In Conclusion

The most important consideration when hiring someone is buy-in from all stakeholders.  The Chief of Staff will spend a lot of time with the driver, maid, nanny, and cook.  If she isn’t part of the process, things will eventually break bad.  I’d even advocate for giving her the final say, even when it’s, “I just don’t feel right about it.”

There are a lot more great ideas floating amid the hiring detritus—creating a list of duties, employment contracts to spell out important details, providing transportation stipends.  What methods have you used?  Which worked and which didn’t?  Were there any that went horribly wrong?


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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look.  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just plain scary.  Copyright can be found here for my original work.

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