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The psychology of hiring a nanny

2015 October 2

Hiring a nanny is a risky business. You’re working from CVs with a variety of qualifications and employment histories, and a three line personal statement which is telling you what you want to hear. Not only that but you’re choosing someone to take your place, in a high-pressure, unsupervised role with unrestricted access to your children. Mitigating risk, a natural human tendency, is going to play a big part in your decision making when choosing a nanny.

To do this you may place arbitrary limits – you want your nanny to be confident handling an emergency so you insist they have a first aid certificate (sensible), you want to know they are a reasonable and law abiding person so you ask for a DBS check (also sensible). You may have preconceived notions about certain academic backgrounds or hobbies, which again is you trying to reduce risk by avoiding the unknown. You may be put off by an unprofessional email address, or an overly-familiar voicemail message, because it calls that person’s judgement into question.

A nanny’s behaviour at interview can go a long way to calm this aversion to risk. Someone confident, positive, able to demonstrate her skills by interacting with your children and who talks naturally and fondly about her employment history is a less risky proposition that someone furtive and negative who ignores your children and seems hesitant about the details on her CV. However beware the so-called ‘affinity effect’. This is where someone skilfully makes themself seem like you, creating a personal affinity, and what could be better for the person who will be stepping into your shoes? Your views are perfectly aligned! Wrong. Reduce this particular risk by asking questions that relate to her knowledge of children and facts as well as fluffier matters like her personal views on discipline, eating and sleep. Ask to see what she’s done in previous jobs. A great nanny will have a portfolio with real examples of activities and menu plans, not just samples of what she thinks you want to see.

Anything and everything can be a warning flag at this stage. Pay attention to those signs, because they may add up to a picture very different to the one being presented. Over-confidence may hide inexperience or insecurity, a little humility is conducive to a working relationship. Truly confident candidates know what skills to highlight and where they perform less well, but also how they can compensate for that.

Make a decision which is based on your needs. Who can tick the most boxes? There is no point bending over backwards to accommodate the nanny you got on brilliantly with if she needs to leave at 6 on the dot and there’s a 1 in 5 chance you won’t be home by then. You won’t get on with her so brilliantly in a couple of weeks because she’ll resent your lateness and you’ll resent her inflexibility. Prepare your questions ahead of time and make sure you get answers to all of them. This will reduce the likelihood of you getting sidetracked by the affinity effect and just having a chat. Never lose sight of the fact that this is a job interview, and that you need to the best person for the job, and that the job is not ‘your new best friend’.

Finally, go with your gut. And how is this psychology? Your brain influences your hormone levels, just as your hormone levels influence your brain. If a candidate makes you tense up for some reason you’re going to literally feel it in your gut because you’ve just produced adrenaline, which shuts down the digestive system in preparation for flight to direct that blood elsewhere.

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