July 27, 2011 / 9:20 PM / 8 years ago

Don't skip the nanny background check

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hiring well is a challenge no matter what the business, but when choosing a nanny or full-time babysitter, the stakes are higher than any other position that you might fill. After all, this person will take care of your child when you’re not directly supervising.

You can find a caregiver in a variety of ways - some of which are more fraught with risk than others, and some of which can take an enormous amount of time and effort.

Amanda Abbott of Austin, Texas, a former TV news crime reporter and now a vice president at anthonyBarnum Public Relations, went about finding a nanny for her 3-month-old daughter the intuitive way - placing ads on local job boards and parenting sites like Craigslist and Yahoo jobs - the way that many parents do. Turns out that this was both one of the riskier ways to hire a nanny as well as one of the most time-consuming, according to Marisa Reddy Randazzo, managing partner of SIGMAThreat Management Associates.

Randazzo, a former Secret Service psychologist, said this isn’t a model that most people should follow particularly the affluent. The problem? Relying on an old-fashioned gut feeling as the primary decision-making criteria.

Abbott thought her experience as a reporter would prepare her for the task, and that her methodology was sound. She pared down 250 emails to 50 based on resumes and email communications. “I then held nearly 40 phone calls, then about 25 in-person interviews,” she said. “I’m also a big believer that it is a gut thing. She wasn’t my first choice from her email but the first time I met her I just knew she had all the nurturing skills and characteristics I was looking for in a caretaker for my daughter.”

Even though Abbott was satisfied with the result, the vital step she was missing, said Randazzo, was a background check, including checking whether the person had any arrests or red flags on their driving record. She recommends going through an established nanny agency, since they are likely to attract the best candidates and will have already done a lot of the screening. This can cost anything from a percentage of the first year’s salary of the nanny you hire to a fixed rate of a few thousand dollars.

“I want to know if the person I’m hiring has trouble obeying the speed limit on a regular basis,” she said.

You’ll need to get the permission of the candidate for you to run a background check.

“Anyone you’re looking at should be amenable to that,” Randazzo said. “If they’re not, that’s the first red flag.”

Randazzo said it is important the agency and you ask questions that elicit answers the draw out more about the candidate.

“Are they answering the question that I’m asking? Make sure you ask a clear question and make sure they answer the question,” she said.

If you can’t get an honest answer at the interview, the candidate is not likely to be someone you’ll be able to trust. Make them comfortable to answer questions that include negative information.

An example: “We all know that kids can be frustrating. Tell me about the time that was most frustrating for you.”

There are added questions when the family is well-known or extremely wealthy, Randazzo said. Those who have additional concerns turn to majority security firms like Kroll, or one like Randazzo’s, which utilizes two former CIA agents to do further background interviews and reference checks. Her services, which cost $5,000 to $10,000 to manage the entire nanny screening process, have made her the go-to person to help hire domestic employees for rich and famous folks, whose children are even more vulnerable than most.

“For high-net-worth families, we ask ‘Why this family?’ It’s a standard job interview question,” she said. “I get a little a concerned if they know too much.”

Boston-based Beacon Hill Nannies, which has been around for more than two decades, picks from a pool of experienced, college-educated professionals who have gone through an array of checks, including recorded interviews prospective families can view.

Among the minimum standards and screening procedures for a nanny set by the agency:

* 5 years experience and a bachelor’s degree

* a minimum one-year commitment

* competent at swimming

* participation in a two-and-a-half to three-hour interview with the agency and a standard 20-question interview for each of the candidates prior child care positions

*criminal background check, driving record check, psychological screening, verification of education and health status

*certification in first aid and CPR.

Because candidates are constantly being evaluated, the agency is able to provide families with potential nannies right away.

“The day we receive their online family application is the day we start sending them extensive profiles,” said Beacon Hill Nannies President Katherine Robinson.

A family will usually see up to 10 applications in that first batch and get more as more candidates are evaluated who might be a good fit.

If families want to forgo using an agency, but don’t want to go the Craigslist route as Abbott did, there is another option. Ryan Erenhouse, a Connecticut resident who works as a senior vice president for Edelman Public Relations in New York, used an online service to get a candidate list.

While the system does build in some components such as the ability to do background checks, it still largely relies on the parent to do all the legwork.

“First my wife and I spent a lot of time looking at the profiles, and then reaching out to see if there was interest,” he said. “We had to both agree that the person seemed normal, serious, balanced.”

After that, Erenhouse said they set up phone interviews and found that to be helpful in narrowing the pool of candidates.

“We originally tried to find people who were relatively close so that if we still liked them after a few conversations by phone we could arrange for an in person interview,” he said. “If they were not responsive or seemed hard to reach we took that as a sign.”

Then they ran background checks through the site and checked the references of the finalists.

“I think that it helped that I used to be in politics and my wife (a nurse) is also used to dealing with a lot of people and getting a read on them, so we relied a lot on our instincts - but it wasn’t easy and we’ve had our share of mistakes,” he said.

Regardless of your method to find a nanny candidate, it’s also important to test the chemistry between the child and the prospective nanny before making a final selection. The initial meeting should be outside the home in a public place.

When you’re ready to seal the deal, Randazzo said, offer a fair salary (typically $40,000 to $60,000) for the candidate’s background and experience. Keep in mind the idea of paying bonuses to further reward them. You want to be sure they remain loyal, she said.

“Nannies should be paid very well and often they’re not,” Randazzo said.

Mitch Lipka is editor of TheConsumerChronicle.com and is a veteran consumer columnist, editor and reporter. Most recently, he led a 10-person consumer reporting team at AOL’s personal finance channel, WalletPop.com. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Editing by Beth Gladstone

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