Monday, February 16, 2009

Employee Relations

Hiring and having household staff is completely alien to us, so we were satisfied when we easily hired a housekeeper and driver. Hiring people who will hold your family's safety and well being in their hands, practically live with you and are from another culture is one of the most uncomfortable things that I've done. We naively made it through our first few weeks of managing our household staff. But of course, we made some "rookie" mistakes and are now on round two with both driver and housekeeper.
Employee #1: Our housekeeper and cook, Indu, helped us tremendously in setting up the house, figuring out what was needed for the kitchen, and teaching us where and how to market. When Indu arrived, we looked to her to tell us what needed to be done, how and when. She would spend the weekends in Delhi, and we gave her a lift into town a few times when we were headed that way. In hindsight, much of this was a mistake. One Monday she called saying she could not figure out what bus to take back to Noida and that she needed to be picked up. So Jon and the driver, who takes 3 buses each morning to get to our home on time, drove into Delhi to pick up Indu. Jon had an hour long conversation with her, reviewing expectations and firmly telling her she needs to get herself back and forth from Delhi on the weekends. But it was too late to reign in expectations, so when a similar episode occurred the next weekend, we ended her contract.
Employee #2: A driver, Kirti, started the day our car was delivered. He was a safe driver, on the quiet side, but always left me wondering if he liked working for us. After 10 days, he called to tell us that his mother was in the hospital and he needed to go to her village. Not to worry though, he was sending a friend, who speaks English, in the morning to drive us. We had no idea how to react - do we believe him, is he quitting and just who is this guy who is showing up to drive us in the morning! Having no better alternative, we decided to just let it play out for a few days. As it turned out, Kirti thoroughly briefed his English-speaking friend Chauhan, about how to drive for us, timings, where to go and where to park. Chauhan also is a safe driver, was more talkative and seemed to be a better personality fit with our family.
Employee #3: After 5 days with us, Chauhan informed us that Kirti must stay with his mother for another 4-6 weeks, but that he gave his blessing for Chauhan to take over our contract. So this is how Chauhan came to be our driver.

Employee #4: Wiser from these experiences and much clearer on expectations, again we interviewed and hired a housekeeper, Mary. She has only been with us a few days and only works weekdays. This seems to be a much better fit with our needs. We already can tell that Mary is a better cleaner and cook. The kids like her. And she and the driver get along, which we've learned is important.

I'm not even going to take a guess about how long it will last. I do not pretend for a minute to have a clue about this subculture and its inner workings. It's impossible to get a straight answer, since people will tell you what they think you want to hear. There are all sorts of cultural landmines and missteps. There is definitely a pecking order (I think the driver is at the top). And there is a strange two-way dependency. These people are dependent on us as their employers, and we are dependent on them to help keep us healthy and safe. I find myself falling into this strange emotional dependency - you want them to be good at what they do, you want them to like their job and your family and if they do, you want them to stay. But the world of servants and domestic help is a complex subculture in what is already a very foreign place.


Deepender Sehajpal said...

Hi Jonathan,

My name is Deepender Sehajpal and I live in the apartment below yours. Having read your experience with your staff, I thought of sharing with you that there is a requirement of making identity cards for the drivers and other helps that one employs - either as full time or as part time in the ATS Village. This is done to ensure that the boanfides of these helps and staff is ensured, which, is very important in India, for your own safety. I'm sure you have got these identity cards made from the ATS office for your staff, in case you need help, you can call me on my intercom number 1033. I will be happy to help you with this or any other issue or matter.

Jennifer Zimmerman said...

I can not tell you how uncomfortable I feel just reading this post, let alone having to actually be the one in charge of dealing with a staff. I hope you are rolling with the punches. Or at least drinking some good Indian beer.

HouseBoy said...

Vigilance, faith and Kingfisher beer (for the employer) are all key ingredients. ID cards and registering your staff with the local police also help. So far so good this time 'round.

Immanuel said...

Been a while since I checked in. But... this live-in household thing. Yeah, I forgot to tell about the hard part ;-). This was one of the reasons for me to settle in the US instead of returning to JKT. I felt uncomfortable too dealing with live-in help thing once I got used to the western lifestyle. Mind you I was born into a culture where you're expected to have live-in help. You're being an employer really, micro (family) business.