Stretched, dual-income couples who depend on `support staff' at home may need to take their role as employers more seriously, says Roger Trapp.

Whenever the subject of parents and nannies or other carers comes up, the emphasis is usually on making sure that you pick the right person - rather than ensuring that you get along, having gone through all the effort to find them.

Yet proprietors of nanny agencies, and nannies themselves, point to some common irritants in the relationship. These include parents who insist in the morning that they will be home on time, then habitually call at the end of the afternoon to say that they have been held up; lack of communication; and confusion over tasks and responsibilities.

What is curious about these complaints is that they are just the sort of thing the parents themselves would find irritating coming from a colleague or superior in their own place of work. A large part of the problem, it seems, is that work done in the home - whether it is child care, housekeeping, cleaning or gardening - is somehow not seen as quite the same as that done in a conventional workplace.

We even seem to be embarrassed about employing people in this way. As one observer put it, while people are generally proud to create a job in their business, when it comes to employing somebody at home there is a certain amount of guilt, or at least discomfort.

This is reflected in the fact that people talk about having "help" in the home, as opposed to "employing" somebody. This can lead to the employers skating around issues such as holidays and overtime rates in a way that they would not dream of doing at the office.

Work Family Directions, a consultancy specialising in workplace issues, puts understanding and willingness to take on the responsibilities of being an employer almost at the top of its child care checklist, along with willingness "to devote time and effort to setting up and maintaining a relationship with my carer".

Liz Bargh, the organisation's chief executive, explains that in addition to legal responsibilities, such as paying income tax and National Insurance contributions, people who take on domestic workers long term need to treat their employees as if they were in a regular workplace, set out formal terms and conditions, encourage dialogue, even have regular performance reviews.

Other commentators point out that many people have trouble instigating such formal arrangements in their own homes. After all, it is all very well being businesslike in the office, but in that situation you are usually not working in somebody's home, and certainly not staying there at night. And although observing how colleagues behave towards each other can provide good or bad examples at work, you rarely get the opportunity to observe such models at home.

One working woman is adamant that it is essential to avoid thinking that you can be friends with the people you employ, either to look after your children or to clean the house. She expects those in the role just to get on with the job. This may be taking things a little far - the experts' advice is to put relationships on a sounder footing, not necessarily to consign them to the deep freeze.

Fruitful relationships between increasingly overstretched, dual-career couples and what many term their "support staff" will depend on their bringing a few more of their workmanlike attitudes home with them.

Just as it is increasingly in vogue to talk of employees taking their interests and values to work with them, so should they bring some of what they learn in their jobs to their dealings with those who work for them at home.

As one parent said, it is simply a case of treating nannies and other "helpers" as you would want to be treated yourself.


1 Go through an agency or act on personal recommendation. If using an agency, make sure they remain responsible for the people on their books.

2 Check all references and if necessary speak to past employers.

3 Establish the ground rules from day one. Don't leave anything unsaid, no matter how small the point may be. Employees should know exactly what they are getting themselves into.

4 Try to be around on the first day. This will put your mind at rest. But don't watch your new employee like a hawk, as this will make him/her behave unnaturally.

5 Determine whether you are going to be addressed by your first name or more formally, by your title.

6 It is important not to be too matey, even though you may like your employee. And don't be too controlling or distant. The `Upstairs, Downstairs' days are long gone, and your employee is not just a servant. Just treat him/her as a professional, and be open to their ideas or suggestions.

7 Try leaving little lists of things that need to be done. That way, your employee will be achieving the objectives you are after.

And especially for nannies:

1 Organise at least two interviews, one for yourself and one for the children, to see whether they establish any immediate bond with your potential employee.

2 Work out who will discipline the children if you are both around. Then always back one another up

3 Always give your nanny a contract, which states the length of his/her working week. And don't eat into an employee's free time.

4 Become a confidant - albeit at a distance. This will establish a degree of warmth, and show you are interested in your nanny as a person. Always ask how her day went, and whether the children have done anything new.

5 Keep a joint diary with your nanny. This will minimise the risk of clashing with those extra baby-sitting duties.

Compiled by Nicole Veash with the help of Kensington Nannies