LESSONS LEARNT FROM NEGATIVE MAID EXPERIENCE

It has been almost two months since we fired B. I have wanted to discuss my feelings on maids and how they’re changed since everything happened, but I also wanted to allow enough time to pass that my response was measured and not just a gut-reaction.

While we have decided that a live-in helper is not right for our family, I still think that they can be an invaluable resource for a family. I think that we had a “bad apple” as the saying goes, and that my experiences in no way should put you off the idea of hiring a maid. However, that is not to say that I did not learn some life lessons, and were we to hire another maid, those lessons would not affect my relationship with her.

Some of these are probably just common sense, but I think they bear saying.

Lessons I’ve learned from my negative experience

1-Don’t leave your purse/wallet out. Be aware of your cash.

Of everything that happened with B, the most understandable in retrospect was the theft of money. Ravi and I were careless with our wallets, we didn’t monitor how much cash we had in our wallets, and in many ways, we created a situation where it was pathetically easy for B to supplement her income, regardless of how generous it might have been by Singaporean standards. When you compare the peso or the ringgit to the SGD or the USD, the income differential is staggering. Most people are honest, but most people will also give into temptation when it is presented on a platter. I can’t say I’ve never cheated on a test when a teacher made it easy to do so and I didn’t study enough. The theft of money wasn’t right, but it is understandable. Were we to hire a new helper, I’d bring my purse into my bedroom at night, and I’d be more aware of my cash, removing temptation.

2-You are the employer, not their friend.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be friendly with your helper, or that a friendship can’t develop. I am saying that you can’t let “friendship” get in the way of an honest evaluation of work. If I’m truly honest with myself, there were lots of “little” issues that had been ongoing for a while–little things like the cat box wasn’t being cleaned daily as I’d requested (and could not do while pregnant)–that I didn’t bring up because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by critiquing her performance.

Her standards slipped, and I allowed them to slip by not providing appropriate feedback…because I felt uncomfortable saying “you’re not meeting my expectations” to a friend. A friend does you a favor–but a helper isn’t doing you a favor, they’re doing work for pay, and when you put “friendship” before employer/employee, you do both of you a disservice. I also let “friendship” blind me to the cash theft, and it was the reason I wanted to believe her instead of Elanor when E told me that B had slapped her–I didn’t WANT to believe that a “friend” would steal from me/hurt my child.

You also can’t let concern over what would happen if you fire them blind you into giving too many “extra chances.” I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I worried about how her daughter’s school would get paid for if I ever let B go. That I let things slide because I didn’t want to be responsible for repatriating her, or making her go to an employer she might be less happy with.

I don’t know that I have great advice as to how to achieve this goal, other than to advise you to remind yourself of the relationship, and perhaps to build regular job performance reviews (monthly? quarterly? I’m not sure) into the routine. My discomfort with this sort of relationship and the fact that I’m just not good at this sort of balancing act are why I probably shouldn’t be an employer.
3-Unless you actually do share a culture, don’t project your cultural values onto them

This is another delicate balancing act.

Part of the reason she’d been able to take things of mine over a long period of time was that I had never so much as poked my head in the door of B’s room. I have a strict fairly American notion of “privacy” and because of that, I not only treated B like a friend, but I treated her like a roommate–and I would never go into a roommate’s room without her permission or invitation. However, if we hired another maid, I might stick my head in every so often and just glance around, or ask for things like performance reviews to happen in her space. Part of the reason I have decided against hiring a new maid is that I’m not sure I actually could do that.

Further, when B asked to go out at night, I shrugged and said sure. I had no problem with her going out dancing. What I figured out afterward is that she was likely moonlighting at Orchard Towers as a prostitute (I found a LOT of hotel room keys–rooms that would cost a significant portion of her monthly salary, and a lot of clothes that lent themselves to that profession, rather than the one I was paying her for). Now, on one hand, I have no issue with prostitution. I do, however, have an issue with the fact that as time passed, she was staying out later and later…which affected her job performance for us. There is also the secondary issue that we could be held legally responsible were she ever arrested in a raid.

Again, I chose not to address the staying out late with her as things were mostly getting done, and I wrote it off as the kind of antics I pulled when I was 21 and went out to a club the night before a mid-term was due. The difference, of course, was that I made those bad choices in college…she made them before she was taking care of my child.

Does that mean the slap from September happened? I know E can push my buttons a hell of a lot easier when I’m sleep deprived. As much as my American cultural values go counter to this, were we to hire another maid, I would think very hard about a curfew on working nights…not because of the prostitution (although, again, had she been moonlighting and gotten arrested WE would have gotten in trouble–so we have my values versus actual consequences there) but because it affected her job performance, and she was not mature enough to realize that she needed to party less during the week.
We gave her far more freedom than she’d experienced at any previous job…and I think she lost sight of her priorities. Which doesn’t make it our fault…but I think if we were to hire a maid, I’d remember the cardinal rule of classroom mangement from my teacher days–you can ALWAYS lighten up, but it’s almost impossible to become strict after giving students too much freedom/responsibility too fast.

4-Think long and hard about leaving your maid alone in your home for weeks at a time.

We found photos of a mostly naked man in our home on her phone. There were, apparently, according to other helpers (NOW they tell me) wild parties in our home while we were out of country.
In the future, I would hesitate to leave a helper alone in my home for weeks on end (we are often gone for 2-3 weeks at a time). Most agencies will let your helper stay with them when you are out of country. I scoffed at that as disrespectful. Now I might.

I’m not saying don’t do it…I’m saying think long and hard first.

In the end, all my advice boils down to one thing–don’t be so blindly trusting. Let trust be earned, not just given blindly. Stop and re-examine if your helpers are still worthy of your trust from time to time, and don’t let yourself be blind to things you just don’t want to see.

Looking back, I can see that I deserve some share of blame.

Helpers do become part of your family. But I think it’s important to remember that it’s a process, and that it doesn’t happen overnight. Trusting too fast too much, and letting the friendship that you develop with them get in the way of honest job assessment is a mistake.

In the end, I have to admit that I am probably not a great manager. It’s certainly a reason to not get another helper that lives with us. I felt too invested in and too responsible for B–I’m much happier with the type of relationships we’re building now with the people we’re working with. A live out cleaner feels much more low stakes (and I don’t feel guilty over putting my jewelry box and our important papers in the office, locking the door and taking the key with me), as does a live-out baby sitter (whom I felt no guilt over being picky about her qualifications). That is what is right for us.

Singapore requires that you take a test my three year old could pass to be an employer. They even bring up some of this in their videos that you watch before taking the test. However, the videos are so over dramatic (the maid who falls out of a window and dies because she didn’t listen to her ma’am, for one) that they’re hard to take seriously.

There is a LOT of peer pressure to hire a live in maid. Other expats will say “I don’t know how you do it!” or “I’d be so lost without my helper;” hell, I’ve said those things. People assume that you can be available at any time, and that you have support people to deal with the kids or to be at home for the installation/delivery/pickup of whatever. It can be exceedingly frustrating to have to explain time and time again that you don’t have that support. Don’t hire a maid just because it’s the cultural norm for expats…REALLY think about whether you can be a good employer/manager.

There are plenty of people for whom is absolutely the right choice. Were I to get pregnant again (not going to happen, but just to say “what if”) I would absolutely need far more support, and a live in helper would be the right choice. If Ravi traveled all the time, like some of my friends husbands do… If I worked full time… If I were a better manager… Any of those might make a live in maid the right choice for our family again.

Your family is your decision, and never feel like you should have to justify your choice to have or not have a maid to me or to anyone.

I own that I made mistakes as an employer. I hope that in owning those mistakes in a public manner like this that others can gain a more balanced perspective of the negatives without the sort of xenophobic bullshit that usually gets slung around, or without trying to paint the employer as a beleaguered saint. I would never paint all helpers with B’s brush, nor would I ever argue that I’m an innocent with no culpability.

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