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  • Elise Hickey

The Trouble with Trials in Domestic Staffing: Balancing Expectations and Realities 

Updated: Feb 26

By Elise Hickey: 10/9/23 

Trials or probationary periods are a growing practice in the world of domestic staffing. For some, they serve as a pivotal step in the hiring process. While they allow both employer and potential employee to evaluate their compatibility, these trials often come with their own set of challenges and complications. 

Finding the right personnel for your home, a place with distinct customs and routines, is crucial. However, a common challenge in domestic staffing trials is managing expectations. Employers often anticipate quick adaptation from new staff, but realistically, seamless integration into a unique household environment typically requires more time and effort. 

Have you ever tried to cook a meal in someone else’s home? How many drawers and cupboards did you needlessly open before you found what you were looking for? Did you feel inept? Frustrated? Did these added steps mean that you were not qualified to cook a wonderful meal? Absolutely not. It only shows that one man’s kitchen organization is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s. I prefer to store my colanders to the right of my kitchen sink, but my sister prefers to store hers across the kitchen next to the fridge. Both systems work well, but when I’m at her house, it takes me longer to complete simple tasks because “things aren’t where I expect them to be.” In some cases, we may just need to ask, “Hey! Where is the colander?” Seems simple, right? But if I’m working a two-week trial, my questions might add up.  

A Maid Sweeping by Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920)
A Maid Sweeping by Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920)

I once worked a three-day trial for a family in New York City. Three days – that’s how long I had to “show ‘em what I got!” New town, new home, new co-workers, new religious practices. It was a Kosher home - with two kitchens, two ovens, two refrigerators, two dishwashers, two sets of kitchen linens and pots & pans–and TWO colanders to find! My head buffered - slowly- all day long. The staff was fast and efficient, as was the expectation of the principal. I was capable, willing, and eager, but I was not fast–yet. It took me twice as long to complete each task because I didn’t know where anything was, and the house was so large that I walked the wrong way down one hall after another until I found my way to where I was supposed to be – yesterday. The staff shook their heads. They mumbled as I fumbled. But the culture in the home did not allow for me to ask questions; there was no time for that. I was not trained or on-boarded. It was a trial, and they were “trying me out,” but I showed up in my work clothes and a metaphoric blindfold. They removed the blindfold as soon as I entered the house, and we were off. It was a terrible experience for me. They actually offered me the job, but I declined it, and they were angry. It was an unpleasant experience for all of us and likely not a true depiction of who we all were.  

Conversely, when I was an estate manager in Newport and hired new staff, I spent days with them. I showed them HOW we did EVERYTHING. We unmade and remade beds (if no one was staying there). We set the breakfast table with real food, then after a quick breakfast, we cleaned up. If we needed to clean things that were already clean, so that I could teach them my expectations, we did it. We did everything together, and then, when I was confident that they were confident, I set them free, and they succeeded.  

I understand the principle of a working trial, but if that trial is not executed correctly, it only provides a limited snapshot of a candidate's abilities and suitability for a domestic staffing role. In fact, in many cases, the full range of tasks and responsibilities of the job may not even be covered during the trial period which only leads to potential surprises or disappointment down the line. 

To navigate these challenges, employers and job seekers should prioritize open communication, clear expectations, and realistic time frames and tasks. If you have taken the time to find a qualified candidate who you are willing to take into your home on a trial basis, why not take a few extra steps to set them up for success? If they feel confident, they can shine. If they are allowed to take risks like asking questions, you may find that your trial is worth the full subscription.  


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