[ Note: I think this might be the longest AuPairMom post I’ve ever written. It was a long train ride and I think I got carried away.]
Host families and au pairs call it mutual expectations, and management scholars call it the “psychological contract”.
The idea behind a psychological contract is that we agree to give our employee/employer certain services and attitudes, and in exchange they offer to compensate us both financially, materially (e.g., with a tv and internet access) and in less tangible terms. When either the services and attitudes change, or the tangible and less tangible compensation changes, Basically, the exchange is now out of balance, and one side feels taken advantage of.
When either the family or the au pair fails to live up to what they said they’d provide, or what they implied that they’d be like, it’s a situation where the psyholocgal contract has been broken.
Usually when we start an employment arrangement, the psychological contract is reasonably clear. When we initially match with an au pair, we know what we are able to give and we try to be explicit about what we expect to get. We are usually able to establish a well-understood balance of what will be exchanged.
However, psychological contracts evolve over time. Many of us host parents relax restrictions and begin to give more compensation, with more free time, more driving privileges, a few family members using our homes as a hotel, and stuff like that.
It’s a problem, though, when an au pair doesn’t recognize and appreciate the extras. And, it’s even worse when she recognizes them but doesn’t hold up her end of the changing exchange — at least the way you think she should.
One situation where the changes in psychological contracts become clear are when ‘on duty’ hours change. Lots of us need different kinds of ‘on duty’ weeks during the winter than during summer vacation, and might go from 30 hrs a week to 45 when June comes around. Great when you can anticipate this and build it in explicitly, but a real drag when it comes as surprise to your au pair. You think that your au pair should appreciate all those weeks in January when she worked only 2/3rds time and got in so much skiing. But now she thinks that you’re asking for too much.
Then, what do you do?
Here’s a specific case, sent in by “I’m being taken advantage of”:
I am a first time host mom in MN. My au pair (from Thailand) arrived July of last year and is scheduled to leave in early July. Our son just turned one last week. She loves the baby and he loves her.
At first things were great. When she came, I bought new bed linen, put flowers in her room, made a welcome sign, etc. At the time, I worked 2 days at home, so I took the time to drive her to the bank and set up an account, to the social security office, grocery shopping etc. She was also very nice to us. I felt I had made the right decision.
Then she developed a boyfriend in NYC. Yes, how don’t ask me. The story is weird. She has started to fly off to NYC for weekend visits. Recently, I was unable to her a ride to the airport because or my own work demands, and she got annoyed at having to arrange other transportation. Then, she decided to blow off her 10:30 Sunday night ‘curfew’ and instead flew home early Monday morning, without discussing this in advance. That pissed of my husband and he told her that in the future she needed to let us know. We wouldn’t have been able to say anything this time, since her ticket had already been purchased. We just needed to know when to expect her back. However, we asked that in the future she talk to use before her boyfriend bought the ticket.
Anyway, she got upset and went to the local childcare coordinator. We had to have an intervention. Things calmed down and she began to make more of an effort.
Now, onto a different set of specifics. My parents have been here since January and I during this time I have asked her to work fewer than 45 hours a week.
So, since January, all these ‘unworked’ hours have built up. This month, I am beginning to return to work full time. In preparation for this, and since my parents are here, I cut down her hours even more. knowing that she would work over 45 hours for two months before she finished the year.
She is in London visiting the boy friend’s parents, so I sent her an email telling her she’d need to work a couple of hours on two Sat. in May (cutting into her ‘boyfriend’ time). She always wants advance notice of her schedule. Now, though, she that she flipped out and is basically saying I should get a babysitter.
But the last few months, she has worked much less than 45 hours and we have paid her fully, as required. I am really upset right now. I feel like I am being used. I am really tempted to tell her that I am terminating the contract and getting a baby sitter. What do you advise?
Dear Host Mom —
The expectations between you and your au pair are clearly out of balance now.
However, before you can address the issue with your au pair, you have to look again at your own expectations to make sure they are reasonable. Not to come off as harsh here, but from where I sit, some of your expectations are reasonable, and some are not.
First, the ‘not reasonable’ expectations:
You can’t carry over hours from one week to the next.
It’s not reasonable (or legal) to expect that you can “hold over” hours that you have not asked your au pair to work. The hours unused from one week can not be carried over to be added to an already full future work week. With regard to work hours, you use ’em or you lose ’em. No carry over.
Any time you anticipate needing more than 45 hours of childcare in a given week, you should be prepared to pay overtime for it, and you should have a backup babysitter, because your au pair is well within her legal rights and also within the initial psychological contract if she prefers not to work these hours — for any reason she has.
That said, some parents make explicit agreement with au pairs from week to week, offering an exra day off now for an extra two hours or a 10 day stretch in the future. But you should expect to pay her for these overtime hours, because they are more than the legal (and reasonable) 45 hours. Not only should the trade-off or exchange be absolutely clear, it should also be agreed to on both sides without pressure and with an explicit conversation.
You can’t assume that your au pair is experiencing these shorter work weeks as a ‘gift’ or that she thinks of the hours as something she’ll owe you back in the future.
Even if you could carry over hours, who’d be keeping track over the course of months? And, what matters more is not the accounting, but the experience. Those weeks are over and done, in her mind.
Now, for the reasonable expectations:
It is reasonable to expect that your au pair might appreciate the reduced work week and extra off duty time, in general.
After all, she has gotten lot of extra free time without losing pay. But remember, this is part of the deal for you as a host mom– the pay is the same no matter how many of the 45 hours per week that she is or is not on duty. She shouldn’t be grateful about being paid in full — this is your obligation, and one that you have kept. But, she should appreciate the free time.
It is reasonable to expect her not to complain about now working a 45 hour week.
With regard to months of less than full on-duty weeks now being followed by two months of more than full time expectations — it makes sense to think that, on your end, your au pair should be grateful enough about the extra time off that she would be willing to ramp up to full time herself without complaint. And, if you had explicitly discussed the change in advance, you might have been able to get her to agree to a few 45-plus weeks. (With overtime pay, of course.) You might still be able to arrange this with her.
On her side, she may resent having to work on weekends now, and having to work a full 45 hour week, but those are the official terms and she should figure out how to deal with it
It is reasonable to expect hope that your au pair might carry over some sense of goodwill towards you and your needs (especially since you have helped her out in other ways).
It is reasonable for you to ask your au pair to work some Saturdays, if this is what you need. But this is exactly where the shift in the psychological contract is most obvious and most problematic.
Although your au pair might have gotten accustomed to having her weekends free, this was not an explicit part of the arrangement that the two of you agreed to. At the same time, she’s now so accustomed to it that, for all emotional intents and purposes, this is now what she’s expecting. In contrast, on your side you see Saturdays as something expected, that she should do without complaint. And, maybe she should appreciate that you’ve rarely asked this of her, even though you could have.
So now what?
— Understand that her sense of what’s fair is based on her experience of these last several months (e.g., weekends off, short work weeks) and that the actual contract no longer holds real weight with her.
— Recognize that part of your expectations are unreasonable, and dial them back. You only have ground to stand on when you stay within the legal boundaries of your contract. None of your expectations for what she should do that are outside the contract are things that you can reasonably ask for, no matter how much sense they make to you.
You can insist on what’s reasonable — e.g., that she work on a weekend, that she work a full 45 hours. You can ask for something more (e.g., an extra 3 hours per week with overtime pay).
— Put your needs for childcare first, over her desire for a convenient social schedule. You can mess around with ways to get back at her for not being grateful, and/or you can come up with a plan that works better for you than for her. For example, if you need 50 plus hours of childcare per week, you can hire a sitter for Monday mornings, and then schedule your au pair for Saturday nights (when, in my town, it’s both more expensive and harder to find a babysitter).
— Be prepared to have a frank conversation with her — face to face and NEVER by email (especially not when she is with her boyfriend, who will in all likelihood fan the flames of her indignation and self-righteousness). Be prepared to ask for what is legal, and what you need. Be prepared to tell her that you think she should be grateful, be prepared for her not to be.
— Give your counselor a ‘heads up’ since you might need her.
— Prepare for either a lot of awkwardness or a nasty ending.
— Get ready to rematch, psychologically and with backup plans, just in case.
— Think ahead to your next au pair or other childcare contract. Have a scheduling plan that covers the whole 12 months and how they might vary (e.g., vacations, family visits, intense work times, quiet times when your spouse might work less/do more childcare) and then discuss this up front with your next au pair.
Something to think about:
We all keep careful track of what we give. Each concession, each Saturday night, each ride to the airport. But as far as remembering what we get? Forget it. That concession, that Saturday off, that ride to the airport– we come to expect those.
And that difference in our ability to track what we get compared to tracking what we give… ? When you put two people into a contract, where each remembers what she’s given and not so much what she’s gotten, that’s how the imbalance starts.
Are you being taken for granted? Almost assuredly.
Is she taking advantage of you? Unconsciously, yes; consciously, who knows.
Should you rematch behind her back? No, unless you absolutely distrust her.
Should you expect her to fly to NYC and not come back? Don’t be surprised.
Can this relationship be saved?
Readers, what do you think?
Image: July 19: Balancing act (58/61)from theDQT on Flickr