What it’s like to have staff (I saw that eye roll!)
Updated: May 12, 2018
If you would ask me what it’s like to have a bunch of people working for me, I would say that it’s pretty much an emotional and organizational roller coaster. Also, when you are a diplomat, it’s an absolute must. I know that for a lot of people, the very idea of having staff is crazy, as it was once for me. But it’s different for diplomats, and other expats.
Let’s start with the emotional part. At our first posting in Nigeria (back in 2008), we had a sweet lady named Alice working for us full-time. She did a bit of cleaning, shopping and cooking. She wasn’t particularly good at any of those things, but we trusted her and most of all: we didn’t have the heart to fire her.
What happened is that we got to know a lot about Alice’s life, which made us realize how much she depended on this job. Because she was single, she didn’t have anyone else to rely on financially. Also, she spent a lot of money on the church, supporting other people. She was the kind of woman people took advantage of.
One day, Alice found out that somebody had plundered her bank account and asked me to write a letter to the Nigerian consumer protection agency for her. I wrote the letter, but because of Nigerian government dysfunction I knew that it wasn’t going to help much. The only thing I could do to really help was to keep her on, give her an extra Christmas bonus, and warn her against giving out account information to other people.
So I get attached to my staff, and I worry about their well-being. I also know that this doesn’t make me unique. I often hear about diplomats who stay in touch with their former staff long after they leave a country. In some cases, they continue to pay for hospital bills or schooling.
At our current assignment in Armenia we had a lovely nanny. Unfortunately, she left us after only a few months. She found a job at a newly opened daycare, and I agreed that it was the right move for her. But I was still heartbroken. I got to know a lot about her, and she made me feel welcome in Armenia (my baby sleeps most of the day, so I actually paid her for her company just as much as for babysitting).
Then I needed to find somebody new, again. Finding the right people can be a lot of work, especially because we have to do it so often. Thankfully, in most countries there is a pool of workers waiting to be hired. They have worked for expats before, so they speak English and come with good references. They also charge about double what other locals charge, but that’s totally worth it for us. Still, the rules and regulations in each country are different, and figuring out how to do everything right is challenging.
Another challenge is communicating across cultures with the people that work for you. I find it very difficult to explain what kind of food I like, how I prefer to wash and organize my clothes, or what I need from the supermarket. In fact, it’s such a challenge that I basically just put up with whatever I get (or don’t get). Otherwise it would be a second job to manage everything!
So why is it an absolute must to hire staff? There are actually a couple of good reasons.
First of all, being an expat/diplomat is a lot of work as it is, without running a household. Working hours are long, just like they are back in the US, and time differences with Washington DC complicate things. Also, working and living in foreign country means you have to figure everything out from scratch – the language, the stores, the bureaucracy, the rules of the road, etc. In addition, when daycare and cleaning services are not well organized you don't have a choice but to hire staff.
Second, the types of houses we live in are so big that it takes days to clean it all. And before you think that’s great (the big houses I mean), read my other post on that! The fact that diplomatic houses are so big does not necessarily mean they are nice. Although I am grateful for free housing, a lot of houses we lived in were just huge boxes with lousy isolation, impractical floor plans, shoddy construction and gaudy finishes. The last thing I wanted to do is spend my whole weekend cleaning the place!
Third of all, not hiring a housekeeper is basically denying someone a job. It didn’t dawn on me at first, but our housekeepers, nannies, gardeners and drivers have to rotate jobs just like us, which means that they always run the risk of becoming unemployed. And they really want to stay in the “embassy pool”, if possible, because it pays relatively well. That’s the reason that my current (part-time) housekeeper worked for embassy families for 23 years!