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5 Interview Mistakes to Avoid when Hiring a Domestic Helper in Hong Kong

Melanie Leung-Shea

Melanie Leung-Shea

Hiring a domestic helper can be daunting if you’re not sure how to get the most out of your interviews. It’s a unique situation which requires both professional and personal aspects. After all, you’re interviewing an employee as well as an addition to your household. We ask domestic help consultant, founder of Helpwise, and author of the “Ask Mel” column, Melanie Leung-Shea, for her insider advice on this important topic.

When interviewing domestic helpers, it can be difficult to know what to say or not to say. How friendly or professional should you be? How do you move beyond the polite yes/no answers that many helpers offer? Should you be viewing the candidate as a potential family member, or more as an employee?

Even business owners who have corporate interviewing experience under their belts have told us that interviewing a helper is uniquely challenging for them. That’s because there’s nothing quite like hiring an employee who will live with you.

To assist you in the process, here are my top tips on what not to do when interviewing your next potential helper.


1. Don’t Admit That You’re New to This

Out of a desire to be honest, or perhaps because you’re feeling a little jittery, many first-time employers begin their interviews with comments such as “this is all new to us,” or “sorry, this is our first time hiring a helper, so bear with us.” Imagine if you went for a job interview and the boss interviewing you said those things. It could possibly lower your confidence in working for them, or it could present an opportunity to take advantage of their inexperience.

I’m not suggesting that you be dishonest about your newness to this process, but try not to highlight that aspect if you don’t need to. Instead, aim to come across as professional and confident. The person you’re interviewing will be evaluating you as their potential boss, so you want to show them that you’re a competent employer.

Top Tip: Come prepared with your key questions, and confidently greet your interviewee. Have a plan for the meeting, take notes, and talk to them as a potential manager might speak to a potential employee. Be inviting enough to work for, but professional enough to be respected.


2. Don’t Use Corporate Interviewing Lingo

“Describe your strengths and weaknesses”, “tell us about where you see yourself in five years”, “what’s one achievement you’re proud of, and one thing that you regret?” – these are questions you may expect to answer when applying for jobs. However, due to language and cultural differences, many helpers are puzzled by this style of questioning. They may not understand the benefits to sharing their weaknesses, or they may think you’re asking a trick question.

The good news is that there are other ways to reveal the helper’s personality and skills, while avoiding confusing terms. Simply increase the number of practical questions, and reduce the number of reflection-style inquiries.

Top Tip: Asking a lot of simple questions is better than asking a few complex questions. In an effort to reduce language barriers, phrase questions in the most basic of ways, such as: “What do you like to do on your day off?”, “do you like to dance and sing with your friends?” or “you said you help your current employer take care of her baby. What do you do when the baby starts crying?” Short and simple is often more effective than deep and wordy.


3. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Hard Questions

In light of the relaxed setting (often a coffee shop or your dining table), you may find yourself treating the interviewee as a new friend that you’re getting to know. It may feel more natural to keep the conversation fairly upbeat and positive, while asking a few practical questions about her abilities. Exchanging some pleasantries can be good, but don’t feel uncomfortable asking more probing questions, which could reveal clues about her character.

Push past any awkward feelings that may hinder you from gathering more information about the candidate’s previous jobs, conduct, or work ethic. After all, the helper you hire will be taking care of your most precious possessions and maybe even your children. You’ll feel much better if you uncover and address any potential issues now, to help avoid anxiety later.

Top Tip: Don’t hesitate to inquire as to why she was late to the interview, or why her previous employer didn’t renew her contract. You may need to ask her why she wrote on her bio that she prefers older kids, or why she changed employer three times in the past five years. Of course, question her in a polite way, but don’t shy away from getting answers that could bring you clarity. Her responses to these more difficult interview questions will likely build or reduce your chances of hiring her.


4. Don’t Allow Guilt To Guide The Decision

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a nice person who wants to do their best to make your relationship with your helper work. I’m guessing you probably care about the helpers that you are interviewing. Some of those helpers may come to you with emotional stories, and you may feel your heart tugging towards a particular candidate whose previous employer never gave them a day off, or the candidate who “really, really wants to work for your family.”

Remember, you’ve got to make the best decision for your household. Try to set the emotional parts aside, so you can choose the person who will be the best fit for your needs and personality. Ask yourself which candidate will make the best employee, not which candidate needs you the most. If that happens to be the same person, that’s great! But give yourself a chance to reflect on the decision objectively, so you don’t end up signing a contract based on guilt or pressure.

Top Tip: Consider the other ways to handle emotional pleas that may arise. For example, if her current employer is abusive towards her, offer her names of organisations that can get her out of that situation. If she’s only got five days left in Hong Kong to find a job, tell her that you’ll get back to her with an answer by tomorrow. If she tells you she really wants to work for you, ask her why she wants to work for you so badly. Try to determine if she genuinely wants to work for you, or if she’s just urgently trying to get a job.


5. Don’t Emphasise Ease Instead of Reality

In an effort to attract a helper to work for them, some employers may promote that they are an “easy family” to work for. This is well-intentioned, but it has the potential to backfire – no job is 100 per cent “easy” all the time. You want the helpers you interview to have a realistic picture of what it’s like to work for you.

As with any job, there are probably perks and downsides to working for your “home company.” Feel free to tell your candidates the good side of working for you: that you’ll respect them as a person, you’ll strive to be good employers, and you’ll pay them on time. However, inform them of the other sides as well: perhaps you live far from an MTR station, have a newborn, or will need to give them a different rest day other than Sunday. Explain the good and bad realities of the job, but don’t promise that it will be easy.

Top Tip: State specific realities, and watch their reaction. Do they look disappointed when you say you have two dogs to look after? Are they delighted when you say you have a toddler in the house? Ask them directly what they think about those things, and observe their expression. Keep in mind that in order for the relationship to work well, it needs to be a good fit for both of you. Make sure any helpers you’re considering are – at least initially – informed and accepting of the basic pros and cons of the job.


Hiring a helper will change the dynamic of your household, so don’t be afraid to take your time and do it as thoughtfully and thoroughly as you can. At the same time, don’t be too overwhelmed by all of the advice you receive on the dos and don’ts of hiring – every employer finds their helper in their own special way. If you do your best to prepare for interviews and ask well thought-out questions, you’ll be one step closer to finding the best match for you!

If you need healthy, respectful advice on helper-related topics such as hiring or managing, Melanie has an array of private workshops, consultations, and topics to choose from. Visit the Helpwise website for more information or check out their Facebook page for tips on helper training resources and upcoming workshops.


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