Hiring a Nanny

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Everyone agrees that thoroughly vetting a nanny before leaving your child in her care is a critical step in the hiring process. You may have a laundry list of what you are looking for in a caregiver, but a clean background should be at the very top of that list.

But, what does a thorough background check consist of? How can a parent hiring a nanny for the first time, or even the fifth time, know that the background checks they performed on their nanny candidate are adequate?

It can be confusing to know where to begin. One of the reasons it is confusing is because companies selling their investigative services may mislead consumers into believing that their service provides more information than it really does. The consumer is often not savvy enough to ask the company exactly what kind of background check they will do. There is a vast difference between an online search and an extensive search of court records. A simple online search may cost less, but the information is not nearly as accurate as a professional background check.

I am the owner of a nanny agency, Family Helpers. We do some checks ourselves, such as the employment and personal references, and we use a service to do the criminal checks for us. Our clients get copies of the results of the screenings, and they do not have to do any of the research work themselves.

However, the vast majority of nannies are not hired through an agency. Most are hired through word of mouth, through online searches, and other ways that don’t involve a professional agency. Here are the steps we recommend you take, whether using an agency, or doing it yourself, to thoroughly vet a caregiver that will be caring for your children.

First Things First

The first interaction between the caregiver and the family may be an introduction through a third party, an email response from an ad or a telephone call or various other sources. From the first minute the family (employer) and the nanny applicant connect, the employer is, knowingly or not, already assessing the candidate. This article focuses on the vetting process, but of course a great deal more goes into determining if a particular nanny is the best fit for your family.

Once you’ve identified a nanny candidate, and before you even meet, you can begin the vetting process.

You can ask five or six essential questions, in an informal phone interview, that help you determine if you would like to consider this candidate as a potential employee.

The important questions are:

  • Are you able to legally work in this country?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
  • Are you currently working? If so, why are you seeking a new position? If not, what were the circumstances that led to your most recent position ending?
  • Have you ever been fired from a position for cause? If so please explain the situation.
  • Can you make at least a one-year commitment?
  • Are you an experienced driver with a valid driver license and a clean driving record?

There are additional questions that you may want to ask that are specific to your family’s needs, but the above list is a good start.

Getting Personal

Once you have satisfactory answers to your questions, and wish to continue considering this candidate, you should search for them on the Internet. A first step is to “Google” the person’s name, but you will want to see if she has a Facebook account, too.

If you are satisfied with the Internet search you should schedule an in-person interview. The first impression is quite important. The nanny candidate should arrive on time, have a pleasant demeanor and be dressed appropriately for a job interview. For a nanny interview this means a business casual look: a blouse or sweater and slacks.

You should ask the caregivers to bring identification (ID) with them when they come for the interview. One form of ID should be a valid driver license, if the caregiver drives. The other form of ID should be a social security card, citizenship papers, a green card, a passport or some form of identification that shows that they are eligible to work in the U.S.

It’s important to keep in mind that if the candidate is an undocumented worker you cannot run any background checks because they lack the legal documents required to do so.

Please look closely at the documents to make sure the picture on the document is the person standing in front of you. Read the documents carefully and look to see if any of the documents are about to expire.

Be Prepared

Be prepared with a list of questions to ask your candidate. Most questions should be open-ended, such as, “How would you spend a day with a 4-year-old?” Questions about discipline are important. You want to make sure that you and the caregiver have similar discipline styles. Most of the questions should pertain to the specific age of the child or children she will be caring for. So, for example, if you have a 2-year-old, you would want to ask her if she’s ever worked with a child that threw temper tantrums. If she has, how did she handle them? If she hasn’t, how would she handle a child that is prone to tantrums?

It is a good idea to ask a question about medical emergencies. Has she ever worked with a child that had a medical emergency? This can be a fall, allergy, asthma attack or other sudden event. Although medical emergencies are extremely rare, they do happen. And if something does happen to a child a nanny is caring for, she needs to have good judgment, act quickly and care for the ill child as well as the other children in the home – all at the same time. Does the person you are interviewing seem like she has the ability to do this?

It is also a good idea to ask a couple of unexpected questions and see how she responds. You can ask about a time the candidate disagreed with her boss and how she handled it. You can also ask her what her favorite books and toys are for the ages of children she will be caring for.

Application & References

You may want to have the candidate complete a nanny application, which contains additional questions that were not covered in the in-person interview. The application can ask about her philosophies on child rearing, situational questions, household duties she will or won’t do, past work history, some health questions and anything else you think is important to know.

If the nanny candidate has answered all of your interview and application questions to your satisfaction, and you like her, you will want to proceed to checking her references. It is ideal to ask for a variety of reference sources. Previous employers, personal references and school references (if she has recently been in school) are all good sources.

Ideally, you will Google the references and call them. Family Helpers has discovered phony references by researching the references online. If, for example, an applicant has listed her sister as a previous employer, but does not disclose that the person is her sister, you may be able to find this information on the Internet.

Once you’ve Googled the references you should phone them and ask a variety of questions. You’ll want to have a list of written questions in front of you, but again, you often get the best information about the candidate by asking open-ended questions. Ask questions that pertain to things that are most important to your family and the culture of your household. For example, questions about discipline, structure and meals may be important to your family.

Some families like to have the nanny do a trial period or a “working interview.” This way the family has a chance to observe how the nanny interacts with the children. This approach has its pros and cons. Children may not warm up quickly to a “stranger,” so even though the nanny is engaging with the children, the children may not respond in a positive way the first few times they are with her. On the other hand, you have an opportunity to observe the nanny’s style of interacting with children. Most parents are looking for a certain type of interaction and it may be very clear to you, after observing the nanny and the children together, if this particular caregiver is or is not right for your family.

Background Check

Once you’ve decided on the nanny you would like to hire you should complete the final, and one of the most important steps, the background checks. This consists of a criminal background check, social security verification, a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) check and a check of the sex offender registry. There are other background checks you can do, but these are the most important.

For further information see the International Nanny Association’s website that has other information on recommended background checks, nanny.org/background-screening.

The candidate can request her records from the DMV and provide you with a copy. You can check her name on an online sex offender registry database. It is best not to rely on an online service to run the criminal background checks. Although many online companies give parents the option of running a very low cost criminal check, in my experience these are usually not accurate and not complete. What they are typically checking is a database called the National Criminal File (NCF). Although it sounds as if it is a national check, there are many things it does not include or check, such as misdemeanors. Lynn Peterson, from PFC Information Services, Inc. wrote a wonderful article explaining what information the NCF does and doesn’t provide. The link to her article is http://theapna.org/blog/not-all-criminal-records-checks-are-created-equal/.

The difference between what an online background checking service does and what PFC (and other businesses of this type do) is check actual court records in the counties and states where the nanny has lived and worked.

Once you receive the completed background checks you should have all the information you need to make your hiring decision. Each of the steps in vetting a nanny can be time consuming, but they are all important and worth the effort.

Susan Tokayer, MSW is the owner of Family Helpers, a full service domestic agency located in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.  She currently serves as the co-president of the International Nanny Association and is a member of Association of Premier Nanny Agencies. familyhelpers.com.


Updated 12:53 pm, July 5, 2013
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