A Guide to Nanny Background Checks

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Whether they’re inhibited by shyness or lack of know-how, many parents do not do thorough background checks on the person they entrust with their child’s care.

As adults, we make some pretty weighty decisions. What’s the best car for our family? Do we take the promotion and move away or do with less money and live in the same town as our family? Does my butt look bigger or smaller in low rise jeans? (OK, that one’s not such a big deal.) As much time as we put in wringing our hands over more trivial choices like the style of a wedding dress or a new haircut, you’d think that a decision as important as who will care for our children would require hours of preparation and research.

Oddly, most people hire a nanny based on the recommendation of an agency or a brief interview. Whether they’re too shy to delve into someone’s past or aren’t sure how to perform a thorough background check, a large number of parents simply allow a stranger to enter their home each day and tend to their children without knowing much more about them than the names of their last two employers.

It’s not a smart way to go, and a laid back attitude toward hiring a nanny can have disastrous consequences. A woman posing as a potential nanny was arrested in upscale Walnut Creek, California, for stealing thousands of dollars from her employers. If the parents had run a simple criminal check, they would have discovered that she was a convicted felon with a criminal record that “reads like a con artist’s handbook,” according to the local newspaper.

Six months earlier and ten minutes away in another affluent suburb, Danville, California, a nanny drove onto a curb and killed two children as they walked with their mother. If the nanny’s employers had performed a basic DMV check before hiring her, they would have known that the woman caring for their children had had her driver’s license suspended at least nine times for drunk driving and other violations.

Those are just the stories that make national headlines. Every day across America, parents find out that their nanny isn’t quite the Mary Poppins she appeared to be in the interview. Of course, there are thousands of qualified, dependable, absolutely terrific nannies bringing up legions of munchkins throughout the country. So how can you be sure you’re hiring a good one? By being as nosy as humanly possible.

What to Ask Nanny Candidates

If you’re willing to spend 30 minutes flipping through fashion magazines to find the perfect hair style, or an hour online researching which minivan has the best crash-test rating, you should be able to spend at least that amount of time interviewing references and asking tough questions until you feel comfortable inviting a relative stranger into your home each day.

If you’re not confident enough to ask someone face-to-face, “Have you ever bounced a check?” or “What three things do children do that aggravate you?” then you need to find a friend or relative who will do it for you; preferably someone who’s either interviewed nannies in the past, or someone who manages a large number of employees and frequently interviews job applicants. You want someone who will recognize red flags and has no qualms about digging deeper until a question is answered. If you think that it’s rude to ask about someone’s credit history or driving record, think again. Any childcare worker worth their salt has nothing to hide and will gladly offer up any information you require. One of the hallmarks of a solid parent/nanny relationship is open communication, so it’s best to start things off on the right foot.

Letting Agencies Do the Asking

Where do you begin? A good way is to start with a licensed nanny agency. These businesses typically charge parents a fee, anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, to match pre-qualified nannies with families. Besides finding someone who meets your criteria for days needed, experience, etc., most agencies also run basic background checks on their candidates. These investigations typically include a criminal record check and DMV reports. Some, but not all, also include ID and address history and credit checks. If you decide to hire a nanny through an agency, make sure to find out exactly what their background checks cover, and determine if that’s enough information for your peace of mind.

Detective Work

If you feel like you need more facts or if you are acquiring a nanny without an agency, you can hire a detective service for as little as $30 (although it usually runs somewhere between $50 and $100—more if you want to cover multiple states) to run a background check that includes conviction records, DMV reports, ID and address history, and credit checks. Professional investigators can also find out whether or not a candidate really has a degree and from what school, perform a sex offender search, double check applications for omissions in employment history, determine how long someone has lived in your state, and get a complete list of past jobs and how long they were held.

While it may seem shady and a little exciting to hire a PI, it’s something corporations do all the time before hiring employees for the mailroom, so it shouldn’t be a big deal when you’re hiring someone to care for your children. It’s also completely legal and doesn’t require the permission of the job applicant. However, in the spirit of open communication, it’s a professional courtesy and the polite thing to do to inform all potential nannies that you plan to run a complete background check.

In fact, a person’s response to this revelation is often telling. Someone who says, “Sure, no problem,” is probably squeaky clean. Candidates who respond by admitting to a speeding ticket or a late credit card payment are also good bets. Everyone makes mistakes, but people who own up to them are a rare find. You want to hire a nanny who will tell you, “I’m so sorry, but I accidentally let the cat out and he’s missing,” or “I was taking Ryan to soccer practice and backed into another car in the parking lot,” rather than one who’ll pretend that nothing happened.

On the other hand, someone who honestly admits to drunk driving or check fraud should be graciously escorted from your home as quickly as possible. The same goes for someone who turns up with an abysmal credit rating. A little bad credit can be chalked up to immaturity or financial hard times. But major debt smacks of irresponsibility and only increases the temptation for someone to skim from the petty cash meant for the children’s outings or steal your valuables a bit at a time.

While standard background checks are a great means to weed out the truly scary characters, they’re still just facts on paper, and can even be misleading; a person can have a bad credit rating because of an ex-spouse, for instance. Personally spending time on the phone to check someone’s references is the best way to really understand your best candidates. And speaking to former employers and friends can help tip the balance between two potential nannies that you can’t seem to choose between.

Some nanny agencies provide the names and phone numbers of a few former employers, and some even include glowing testimonials from past families. Those are an excellent start, but a good reference checker is like Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters—someone who’s bound and determined to get people to open up and tell you everything.

The Importance of References

Begin by gathering references during your first interview with a potential nanny. Ask him or her for the names and numbers of at least three former employers, plus the contact information for three personal references like a clergyman or former teacher. Don’t accept best friends or relatives as references. You don’t want to waste your time listening to someone’s mother gush that, “Linda was so sweet with her baby dolls and was voted Most Popular in eighth grade!” or hear her best friend offer up tired cliché’s like, “She’s the kind of person that’s always there for me! She’s always there through thick and thin.” That’s all lovely, but it doesn’t tell you the important stuff like how someone reacts under stress or if they learn best through verbal or written instruction.

Unless your nanny candidate is really on the ball, she won’t have all those names and numbers handy, so give her a day or so to gather the necessary information for you. If she’s only been a nanny to one or two other families, it’s perfectly valid and sometimes helpful to contact her old boss from a restaurant or retail store. You may learn something by inquiring how many sick days she took in a year, if she was consistently punctual, and if she quickly adapted to new tasks or if was ever Employee of the Month.

Armed with a solid list of references, it’s time to burn up the phone lines! The best time to call someone is generally in the evening. Due to Human Resource Department restrictions, many companies will only give out a person’s date of employment. Even if you manage to get a manager on the phone, they are often reluctant to discuss former employees within earshot of the ones still there.

If you’re having a hard time breaking the ice with an old boss at the office, politely offer to call him or her that evening after dinner. Something along the lines of, “You know, it’s hard to talk about this stuff at work, and I’m probably interrupting important things you need to get done. Would it be too much trouble if we could continue the conversation this evening? Say around 7:00 PM?” Having a heart-to-heart chat later in the evening ensures that you’re speaking to someone who’s a bit more relaxed, with no worries of anyone listening in.

What to Ask Former Employers

There are no perfect questions for every reference and every candidate, but in general you want to ask very open-ended questions that force the respondent to tell a story. Yes and No questions like, “So did you like having Teresa as your nanny?” are pretty worthless. Be Barbara Walters! Be Oprah! Ask information gathering questions that lead to more questions such as:

  • “What three things did you like best about working with Teresa?”

  • “What two things do you think she taught your child that you never would have thought to teach him?” (For instance, words in another language, how to knit, or how to play a new game or sing a different nursery rhyme.)

  • “Tell me about a time when you needed to correct or change the way Teresa handled something with the kids? What was the situation? How did you approach her and what was her response?” Any question that begins with “Tell me about a time … ” is usually a good one.

  • Another way to get more details is to follow-up dead-end answers with, “Can you give me an example?” Say you ask, “How did Teresa handle criticism?” and her old boss replies, “Oh just peachy! No problems.” Your response should be, “Can you give me an example of a time you criticized her and how she reacted?”

Here’s a reference checking rule of thumb: You’ll rarely, if ever, be given a reference that doesn’t gush about the person in question. That’s because no one in her right mind will list a reference that’s going to bad-mouth her. Most people will readily gossip about a former employee once that person is gone but are oddly reluctant to say anything negative when it’s ‘on the record.’ Therefore you have to be creative enough to unearth the fallible human being behind the angel you’ll hear about time and again. You’re not trying to air dirty laundry here—your goal is to attempt to understand your candidate’s weaknesses, so you can decide if they matter to you.

One way to find out is to bluntly inquire, “What are Teresa’s weaknesses?” If that fails to illicit anything except, “Oh, I just can’t think of any!” try asking, “If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change about Teresa?” Assure the reference that your conversation is completely confidential and that everyone has room for improvement, whether it’s their handwriting, choice of perfume, or putting the dishes in the washer the wrong way.

In all, a thorough background and reference check should cost you no more than $100 and two to three hours on the phone. It’s not a big deal, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Choosing a nanny is a big decision that tremendously impacts the life of your child, so it’s no time to be shy. Ask as many questions from as many people as you can, so you can rest assured that your new nanny is the best one for your family.

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