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Coping with a problem nanny

Published on: September 01, 2009

Your nanny is late again and you have an important meeting. As you frantically reschedule while your children scream in the background, your frustration escalates. Is it time to shop for a new nanny?

“First and foremost, the nanny is your employee. It’s important to set up a professional relationship from the outset,” says Suzanne Royer-McCone, president of Annie’s Nannies Household Staffing. Royer-McCone stresses the importance of putting clear systems in place with the nanny at the beginning of the relationship. She notes that many babysitters and nannies are not aware of an employer’s expectations, and therefore are unlikely to meet them.

Establish clear expectations

It’s important to provide your child care provider with a clear job description. “One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to bring a nanny into the family and just start paying her,” says Royer-McCone. “If nothing is written out, nannies often do not even realize what the expectations are.”

Many parents feel awkward putting formal rules around such an intimate relationship — someone in your home caring for your children. But Royer-McCone notes that if a family is not setting any clear guidelines for the caregiver, the lines can get blurred. “Nannies could take advantage if there are no rules, especially since they are not in a professional environment and there are often no supervisors around.”

Royer-McCone recommends providing the nanny with written documentation, such as a work agreement or job description, which you both review and sign. Work agreements include details on how and when nannies will be paid, time off, grounds for termination as well as specific family rules and emergency contact information. “It’s helpful to get the administrative details that people hate out of the way. That way the nanny feels like this is professional as opposed to trying to do that later when things get too familiar,” Royer-McCone says.

Handling issues as they arise

Minor issues — like the nanny who feeds your child too much sugar, lets them watch television or leaves the house untidy — while hardly grounds for termination, can be a source of frustration. Many parents are not sure how to communicate with nannies about the little things.

Carrie Morris, founder and owner of Nanny Pros, suggests scheduling regular weekly or bimonthly “family meetings” with both parents and the nanny to discuss everything that’s working and not working. “All too often, the parents find out that the nanny is actually doing a lot more work with the children than they ever realized and that there simply isn’t enough time in a day to get to all the laundry.”

As incidents arise, Royer-McCone encourages parents to reiterate family rules calmly and politely to the nanny. “Don’t assume that you already told the nanny. Give her the benefit of doubt and say something like, ‘This is what I’ve been noticing. I’m sorry if I didn’t tell you upfront, but we don’t do TV,’” Royer-McCone suggests.

Motivating your caregiver

Money is not the only way to motivate your nanny. Seattle-based mother and workplace writer Joanne Gordon suggests, “To get more out of a nanny, give her what you would want out of a job.” A few of Gordon’s suggestions include:

• Flexibility — She, too, has a life outside of work.
• Autonomy — No one likes a micromanaging mommy.
• The ability to make a difference in your child’s life — Let the nanny re-organize the playroom, shop for new toys or suggest classes.
• Recognition for work well done — Be specific and sincere in your praise. For example, “Thanks for helping with that creative art project.”

Handling repeat offenders

If your nanny repeatedly forgets to tidy the house or feeds the kids fast food despite frequent reminders, you need to understand that that person is not going to change. “You can nag all you want, but it’s probably still going to keep happening,” says Royer-McCone. “At that point, you need to decide if it is big enough deal to find a new nanny.”

As long as the children are well cared for, Sally Kidder Davis, M.Ed., certified parent coach for Sound Parent, recommends picking your battles with the nanny. “Let go of the things that aren’t that important while keeping the bigger picture in mind. For example, the situation may not be perfect, but while I’m away I know my children are loved, adequately cared for, safe and appear comfortable when I return home.”

Nanny burnout

Even the most amazing nannies can burn out after a few years, slowly dropping the ball on household chores or losing their passion for the job. Many parents try everything they can think of to hold on to the nanny and keep her happy, often including generous raises and bonuses, but Royer-McCone advises that there is no way to motivate them out of it. “Some of the best nannies are nannies that do move on,” she says. “They’re ready for their next step and when it isn’t happening fast enough, the nannies get burned out. A lot of families think what they need to do is throw money at the nanny, but it’s not about money or bonuses. If a nanny is ready to go, you need to let her. Don’t turn your life upside down trying to hang on.”

When to cut bait

Any of the following behaviors is a reason to fire a nanny, according to Morris.

• Job incompetence, including any kind of neglect
• Causing a disruptive influence in the household
• Unreliability in time keeping or attendance
• Failure to comply with instructions and procedures
• Dishonesty or theft
• Breach of confidentiality, such as gossiping about family

How to terminate the relationship

There is no easy way to fire a nanny, but Morris recommends doing it swiftly and immediately. “Depending on the circumstances, you may want to offer your nanny severance and/or time to find employment elsewhere,” Morris said. A rule of thumb is a week’s pay for every year of service to your family. If possible, give your nanny a week or two of notice so she can find a new job. If the situation is more serious, though, let your nanny go immediately. And don’t offer to give a reference if you don’t feel that you can give the nanny a good one.

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is a Seattle-based writer and marketing consultant. She has two children, ages 1 and 3.

Tips for keeping your nanny happy

Be home on time — Your nanny has a life outside of her work, and when you are running late, even by 15 minutes, it affects her plans. Try to be home on time and always pay your nanny for any extra time when you are late.

Provide clear direction — If your nanny is falling short of your expectations, give her feedback. You may be feeling upset or resentful about something that the nanny did not even realize was an issue.

Pay well and offer bonuses for a job well done — In addition to paying nannies a fair wage, Morris suggests giving thoughtful bonuses, such as a gift card at Starbucks, as a reward when nannies hit milestones or accomplish specific goals.

Work as a united front — Try not to contradict the nanny in front of the kids. When you are home with the nanny, let her run the show.

Be professional — Make sure you pay your nanny on time and in a professional manner. Though Royer-McCone notes that parents sometimes think of a nanny as a “paid friend,” you are her employer and should always treat her with professionalism and respect.

Seek the nanny's input — Give your nanny enough autonomy to do her job well. Gordon advises, “Sit down with your nanny. Ask her how things are going and if she has any suggestions for how to make the days more enjoyable and easier for everyone.”


Originally published in the September, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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