Sitter Hiring Redux

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's sitter screening time again. My wife is going to be exceptionally busy over the next couple of weeks, and we need someone to cover for date nights and occasional busy bursts later on, anyway. Part-time daycare is working well for us, but it has its limits.

"What, Gus? You haven't taken care of that already?" I can almost hear you asking.

My answer: I thought I might have, just before the holidays, but learned otherwise. I just haven't had the time to address the issue until recently.

Right before we left Boston, our favorite sitter offered to connect us with a friend here in St. Louis who could sit for us during the moving-in period. This looked like a good way to avoid having to go through the usual screening/hiring process on top of the move: We'd be there anyway, just unpacking boxes, for example, so we wouldn't really be at the mercy of a mediocre sitter, and we'd become acquainted with the sitter and be able to decide where to go from there.

The friend, whom I should have called beforehand, turned out to be too busy, but had friends who might be interested in sitting and offered referrals. We used two of these. They were nice enough people, but inexperienced with infants and untrained in infant CPR. We could help with the first ourselves and offered to send each sitter to a CPR course (These take just a few hours.) later on, if we decided to use them after the move was complete. Either would have made a fine sitter in time, but for other factors that gradually became apparent...

One needed to learn how to use a calendar and the other took forever to get to email. The first of these tended to forget about other obligations and had to reschedule a couple of times within a month. I wasn't especially bothered by this until I got a call -- after I'd gone to bed -- for a cancellation for an appointment the next day -- so she could study for an exam she knew all semester she would have to take. That one caught me completely flat-footed: Good thing I didn't have a deadline to meet that day. I knew I had to replace her then.

The other sitter I might still use occasionally, but since most of my needs are of the short-notice variety and she usually takes a couple of days to reply to my emails, she's not really an option most of the time.

I think my usual screening process would have caught the second and would have had a reasonable chance of catching the first. I am not going to beat myself up over having to start over again: Under the circumstances, this seemed a reasonable course of action, but hindsight is showing me that it was really a gamble, and that I lost. I have had to do an entire screening process from scratch anyway. (And I don't have a "go-to" sitter for all practical purposes after being here for several months.) If I had a similar situation again, I'd probably try to make up for whatever I'd normally do being missing (e.g., speaking to more than one reference). Both sitters had problems that became apparent only after time -- but asking the right kinds of questions of references could have caught them and saved me time.

In any event, what prompted me to post on this was my recollection of a friend's theory as to why I was so happy with my Boston sitters. He thought I was mainly lucky, drawing as I did from a larger pool of candidates. I am only close to hiring now, but this seems not to be the case. The St. Louis area is just a little over half the size of the Boston area, is more spread out, and -- while Wash U. is a fine school -- having it nearby is not quite the same as being in the Athens of America, with its numerous colleges and high-tech economy.

And yet, I am finding once again that I will have to turn down very good candidates and am kicking myself for not just biting the bullet and doing this back in October. Everyone I am talking to is CPR trained and has at least some experience sitting or nanny-ing children of about my daughter's age. On paper, they look as good as my Boston sitters in other ways, too, and the ones I've spoken to sound comparable. I speak to references today, and expect to have a set of three sitters, any one of whom will be more reliable and responsive than the two I'd employed before.

That said, I can't help but remark on a few applicants I rejected out of hand. I was about to cast this as advice for people interested in becoming baby sitters, but much of this seems to be the kind of thing that can't even be advice. (That is, if I'm having to say it to someone, that person is probably beyond -- or completely unready for -- the advice.) Instead, I'll cast it as gotchya's for parents who need sitters.

Here are red flags from the current pile of summary rejections: If someone advertises as being available on short notice and answers your ad -- more than a day or so to reply to your further inquiry is a red flag. Signing a reply to a customer review "[name] Life Ministries" indicates someone who will be more than you bargain for, and in a very bad way. Someone who is too lazy to use complete sentences may well be too lazy to do other, more important things. When your ad clearly states a set of qualifications and an applicant is missing more than one, you should wonder about how well the person will pay attention to or follow other instructions. Someone who can't or won't answer five or six questions about issues not covered in your ad or their profile demonstrates either a lack of genuine interest in the job or doesn't sufficiently appreciate the concerns of a parent: Uh-oh. I always send out a short list of questions: About half of the initial respondents to my ads weed themselves out for me by not bothering to answer. (I cut-and-paste from a list of things that probably won't be covered, add the applicant's name, and tailor the question list as necessary.)

This practice has served me well in the past, and intend to deviate from it far less in the future.

-- CAV

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