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How to Hire a Nanny and What Not to Do

After the birth of my second baby—a sweet little boy—my husband and I decided to hire a nanny to help with him and our 5-year-old daughter. I was returning to work full-time, and my job included a great deal of travel.

We scoured caregiver websites without luck, and friends and family referrals yielded no candidates. In desperation, we placed a Craigslist ad and found Holly in short order.

She had a college degree, childcare experience and was well spoken. She aced our very brief interview and seemed to have a rock-solid resume. She was a mom herself, which in my mind meant she had to be loving and kind. Within a day of meeting her, we had hired her to care for our children.

And so began the episode now known in our family lore as "The Nanny Nightmare," a tale that starts off like Mary Poppins and ends in a confusing swirl of lies, provocative Internet photos and a stint behind bars.

Timeline and Expectations

Because we were facing my impending return to work and suffering through the normal fatigue of having a newborn, we made some major mistakes during our search. The task of hiring the perfect nanny seemed daunting, so we put it off. Then, with a business trip coming up in less than a week, we put an emergency posting on Craigslist, which led us to Holly.

When you're desperate for help, any expectations you have for childcare go out the window. We rushed the process, and we had no idea what we were looking for in a nanny.

"Before you even start your search, you need a realistic expectation on what you want in a nanny," says Caroline Malkin, co-owner of Trusting Connections, a nanny agency in Tucson, Ariz.

Before you place an ad or start the interview process, Malkin suggests you write a job description of the childcare position. Are you looking for someone just to watch your baby? Do you want help with housework? What are you willing to pay? Are you willing to try a manny? After you have a clear idea of what you're looking for, you can start your search.

In addition to unclear expectations, during our nanny hunt we failed to allow enough time for the process. Rushing the process meant we skipped valuable steps that likely could have prevented our nanny nightmare.

"If you want a forever, long-term nanny, it's important to take your time," Malkin says.

If you're doing it right, without the help of an agency, two months is the minimum amount of time it takes to hire a nanny, Malkin says. Anything less than that means cutting corners and potentially opening the door for failure.

Resumes and References

When hiring Holly, we did ask for a resume and she had some childcare experience. But she didn't have references, and we didn't ask for any.

Malkin says that a suitable candidate should provide three references, and you should personally call each one. You can glean a great deal of information during a short chat with the nanny's former families.

Remember that many great nannies don't have professional resumes, but a resume is important to see how long they stayed at their previous families. You want to know the candidate not only has childcare experience, but also how long they stayed with each child they cared for. Less than a year with multiple families is a red flag, according to Malkin. You'll want to find out why the nanny has bounced from family to family.

Time to Talk

After you've reviewed resumes and narrowed down potential candidates, it's time for an interview. Interview all nanny candidates you're considering hiring. No ifs, ands or buts, "every nanny should be interviewed face-to-face," Malkin says.

Conduct a professional interview, like you would for any other job or job candidate. According to Malkin, an hour-long interview is perfectly acceptable when you're trying to hire someone to care for your child. Spend as much time as possible with the candidate.

"Nannying is a profession. It's their job." Malkin says. "You need to maintain that professionalism on both sides."

Come to the interview prepared with a list of questions. Don't ask a potential nanny about her life goals for the next five years. Instead, ask her about her views on nutrition, discipline and education. Devise scenarios to see how she would handle things that may come up on the job. Ask the nanny candidate what she would do if your baby had a rash or refused to take a bottle. Not sure what to ask? Try this list of starter questions from Care.com.

If possible, Malkin suggests having the potential nanny interact with your child during the interview process. Seeing how someone interacts with your little one speaks volumes.

The last 10 minutes of our interview with Holly included our children. Right away, our daughter clammed up and acted as if Holly had the plague. When Holly held our baby, she seemed uncomfortable and uninterested. This should have set off alarms for us, but remember, we were desperate and under a time crunch, so we convinced ourselves our unease was due to being overly attached parents, and we let it go.

Background Check

Did we do a background check on Holly? Nope. Had we done a simple search, we would have uncovered her history of passing bad checks and a string of arrests from her early 20s. But we didn't, and we got burnt—bad.

Malkin says you should never employ a nanny without a background check. Although online searches can be helpful, Malkin counsels against relying solely on them. She suggests hiring a private detective, which costs between $40 and $100, depending on where you live.

"(A private detective) is money well spent," she says. "Online background checks just don't cut it."

Because there's no single, national database to look at when hiring childcare, a private investigator can scour local, county, state and national records to see what your potential nanny has been up to. It's much more complicated than a Google search of the candidate's name.

Trial Period

Malkin suggests starting with a trial period before you commit long-term to a candidate. Have the nanny come work for you, but stay home and observe her with your children. Before you offer her a permanent position, spend a few days—or even weeks—making sure the candidate is what you're looking for in a nanny. This alone could save a lot of grief in the long run.

Put it in Writing

Once you have your nanny, then it's imperative you create a work agreement. You need to create a contract that lists all of the expectations you have as an employer, because without it, the potential for disaster is huge.

Things to consider including in the contract range from basic, such as rate of pay and work hours, to the more complicated, like vacation time and whether she's allowed to have guests in your home.

Happy Ending...Eventually

Just weeks into our first nanny experience, we watched Mary Poppins turn into Hostile Holly, a bad employee who had a serial struggle with the truth. We also grew frustrated that she was becoming increasingly unavailable for work. Some poking around online led us to discover Holly had a second, secret job as a restaurant hostess, which explained her absenteeism.

Unearthing this prompted my husband to do some additional online sleuthing. More than a month into Holly's time with us, I was on a business trip in Denmark when I woke up to a strange email from my husband. The subject line said "Our nanny doesn't do nudity." It was a reference to Holly's online modeling page, which featured her in various stages of undress. There was a bio, her body measurements and a disclaimer above her lingerie shots that read: "I do not do nudity."

At first I thought, "What do I care if she does modeling? I'm not a prude." But it wasn't listed on her resume or brought up in any of our conversations with her. When it was placed beside other things we were finding out, it became another troubling lie of omission.

Before we could act on our mounting doubts, our relationship with Holly ended a few days later as suddenly it had begun. She disappeared with our garage door opener and house keys. We later learned that she stopped responding to our phone calls and texts because she was in jail facing felony fraud charges. The police report my husband retrieved said she was accused of stealing credit card numbers from patrons at her other job. She went to prison for two years, and we learned from our numerous missteps.

Our tale has a happy ending though, and your nanny search can, too. Extensive interviews, background checks and a solid contract landed us the most amazing nanny in the world. Our children love her, and we can be confident in her abilities because we invested time in the process of finding her. She's been with us for almost three years, and she's practically Mary Poppins.

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