When Your Au Pair Breaks Your Psychological Contract

by cv harquail on April 24, 2010

[ 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?

July 19: Balancing act (58/61) by theDQT

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


My 2 cents April 24, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Sounds to me like this au pair has gotten a little too comfortable with you as her host family and feels she can take advantage, or at the very least play hard ball with you and negotiate her schedule as she sees fit for her purposes. She plainly sees you as her crash pad until such time as she can figure out a way to get NY boyfriend and family to put her up.

I have not had this exact situation, but I have experience with a less than appreciative au pair who was working far less than required, and then was asked to step up to the full 45 hours in her second half year. Not pleasant, but her full services were needed, so we had to lay out the new schedule and make it clear that it was not negotiable and that this was how it would be. Keeping it impersonal and business-like helped me both communicate effectively, and control my emotions, and that’s what I suggest yo do.

First, you cannot make her work over 45 hours no matter how little she worked before, so just get over that if it’s still an issue for you. You will have to make other arrangements. As to the allowed hours, make it clear to her that this is her upcoming schedule which will include her working a full schedule. Insist on her full agreement to it. If she cannot commit to it, or it seems like she’s going to back out or otherwise disappoint you, give her notice, call your agency , start transition and she leaves. Period. No negotiation. No looking back. No guilt.

She’s here to do a job and make your life easier. If she cannot do that, she leaves. Transition in the last 5 months if not pleasant, but sticking it out hoping she won’t bail on you or trying to patch child care arrangements around what she feels is a fair schedule suitable to her personal wants, is worse.

Good Luck.

Jillian April 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm

(I’m back after much much too long apart, I’ve missed you AuPairMom!)

I’m going to suggest to you what I made my new years resolution: don’t try to reason with crazy! I’m not saying your au pair is crazy, but she is (I’m assuming) a teenage or at least early twenties. Teenagers and many young adults do not have fully formed senses of reality. It sounds like she feels pretty entitled and doesn’t want to abide by the rules though they have been pretty lax so far. The fact that she’s jetting off to NYC and London would be cause for concern for me. What you need to keep in mind is that this is not a case where you should try to reason with her, explain why you want her to work the 45 hours she’s contracted for, or beg her to work. Don’t be overly harsh, but very clearly and unwaveringly tell her when she will be on duty and when she won’t. You can’t make her work over 45 hours but you can insist that she works all 45. If you’re worried she’ll go to NYC and not return, most definitely express this concern to your coordinator so that in the event of her unexpected departure you are neither responsible nor left in the lurch. Don’t try to rematch behind her back, but DO be sure that you and your family’s needs will be taken care of should she decide she no longer wants to be a part of your family. Good luck!

PA HOST mom of TWO Au-Pairs April 24, 2010 at 6:47 pm

This seems to be a problem for many host families the working hours. Often I hear that the AP is only working 30+ or less hours and she gets quite comfortable not having to work the full 45 hours if needed. To nip this in the butt right away- ALWAYS schedule her for the FULL 45 hours a week. I personally ask in the interview if they are able and willing to work this each week. I schedule them both for the FULL 45 hours with Saturdays and if I finish work early I just kindly tell them they are finshed for the day. If they finish early it’s a relief to them to work less hours that week.

Mom23 April 26, 2010 at 11:44 am

We learned this the hard way. We had an au pair who was working 32 hours/week. For a couple of weeks we needed her to work 38 hours/week (and two of those extra hours the child was napping). The au pair complained bitterly that it was just too much work for her.

We now write the schedule to show the maximum hours in the schedule. We also write a summer schedule and show both to the au pair before finalizing the match. We are also very clear that we expect that the au pair will work two Saturday nights per month and have the other two off. We also try to give the au pair at least one three day weekend/month.

Taking a computer lunch April 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm

We transition from 22 1/2 – 25 hours per week to a full 45 hours for the summer, which is always always always at the end of our au pair’s year. I sit them down two months before the schedule shift and warn them. I explain that while they have been accustomed to a short split-shift while the kids are in school, there are weeks when our special needs daughter has no school and no possiblility of summer camp. They are not allowed to request their holiday time during this period either (on the other hand, they CAN expect to have every weekend off when they work a full-week Monday through Friday).

If I had an au pair fail to show up for her scheduled work period, believe me, she’d work longer days the rest of the week (e.g. 4- 10 hours days) and I’d be working longer too! She’d also work 5 hours on a Saturday night. However, if she’s on time and works a full-shift, I would say, “You really had me worried. I know you want to be with your boyfriend as much as possible and I appreciate your showing up on time. We need to talk later.” (And give yourself a few hours to cool off.)

I believe in personal communication. Sit down at a table, and look her in the eye. Don’t threaten, don’t plead. Don’t tell her how much you have given her. It’s a contract she made with your agency and you. Don’t use email, don’t use a telephone. No one can read body language and there’s no room for give-and-take.

You can’t make her work more than 45 hours per week, and you obviously haven’t built the kind of relationship that makes her willing to do so. Don’t count on it – hire a babysitter – because if she calls in the LCC, you’ll lose anyway.

I always schedule the au pair by the 20th of the month (e.g. by April 20 for May 1-31). Is it written in stone? No. Do we change the schedule more than once? Yes. But the au pair has a good idea of when she will be working (and when we will need to use both cars so she will count on having to take public transportation). If the au pair has a concert that she really wants to attend, or a trip she really wants to make with friends, we take that into account. If an AP wants to accompany a departing friend to the airport, then we do our best to make accommodations (but we can’t always honor them).

However, I think the psychological break is normal, especially if you have less than 2 months with the AP. The separation happens, and it takes excellent communication skills to keep the AP motivated at working for you, and excellent patience on your part not to nit-pick every little thing that is wrong (believe me – I’ve walked this walk many times).

As other HM have written elsewhere, you bend the rules for APs giving 100%, not for ones pushing the envelope.

westcost mom April 25, 2010 at 10:11 am

Whats left after the Au Pair has seen everything?

How can you keep you au pair who feels like she has seen what there is in the US, have had her family visit and travel with her for two weeks, have been to places like NY, SF, Hawaii, and after 6 months is ready to go home??? The au pair is fantastic with the kids and we want to encourage her to stay for her full term. All of her friend went home, and there is a boyfriend waiting, who could not come on this trip with her family because of work.
What can we do?

Angie April 25, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Let her work through her mid-year slump. It’s normal to get homesick/lonely when friends leave, but she will make new friends. She needs to see her au pair year as a contract and a responsibility to your family.

If boyfriend in home country is more important than honoring her commitment to you when you’ve done a lot to make her happy here, then you can’t win.

Taking a computer lunch April 25, 2010 at 8:31 pm

I’m still a big fan of the across the table face-to-face meeting. Don’t plead with her to stay, look her in the eye and ask her to draw up a list of the pros and cons for staying versus leaving.

Tell her that you know it’s very difficult to watch friends leave after their year has ended, but that separation and saying good-bye (or rather “see you later”) is part of being an adult. It’s a new experience for those au pairs who have always lived in the same village/town/city, and have extended family around them. It can be extremely traumatic.

And then, if you have room to negotiate (because 6 months is a long time), then play on the importance of her role in your children’s lives. (And have her imagine, knowing how difficult it is for her to stay goodbye to her au pair friend, for your children to say good-bye to her.)

Then, encourage her to reach out to newly arriving au pairs, reminding how much her friends helped her adjust, and how she can be like a big sister to those just coming.

And if doesn’t work, then you say goodbye. Just like that.

Anna April 25, 2010 at 12:42 pm

westcoastmom, in one of the agencies I’ve been with, if the au pair and family part before the year is over, they settle the accounts financially. If the au pair took all her vacation, she pays back prorated vacation days that are proportional to her remaining term; same with the tuition money (if she didn’t take any classes yet, family pays her prorated fraction of $500, if she did – she pays the family)

It sounds like your au pair took advantage of all her perks in the first half of the year. Tell her if she leaves she will have to pay you back for half of them if she has 1/2 year left; after all if you get another au pair, you will owe her the whole thing again.

Talliecat April 25, 2010 at 8:55 pm

I recently had a similar conversation with our au pair in which I told her that we were going to have to change the schedule.. ie-she works Mon-Thursday and some Saturdays and I would watch my son on Fridays. She then told me point blank that she didn’t want Fridays off because no one was around and she would rather have Saturdays and Sundays. I think I stood there.. ( mouth agape ) and didn’t say anything and then said well this is the way it is going to have to be because I don’t want you to work more than 45 hours a week. I am going to revisit this with her.. and explain that the reason that we got an au pair ( rather than a nanny ) is to make our lives easier. We make the schedule and determine when she should work and not vice versa. I have gotten into too many other situations where I end up accomodating other people and then get left in the dust.

Darthastewart April 26, 2010 at 10:21 am

I had a period of time where I had two au-pairs and it was a real pita because neither wanted to work evenings or the occasional weekend. UGH. I told them they had to, but it was SO annoying. 2X au-pairs did NOT equal 2X the work. It was, however, 4X the aggravation!

FormerSwissAupair April 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I’m confused. Did you have a prior schedule worked out and then you just changed her hours and expected her to be okay with them?

Host Mommy Dearest April 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Maybe the AP usually had a certain schedule and the HM wanted to change that going forward? That is totally within the rules for a US AP as long as it is within the 45/10 max & 1 w/e per month off req’d. I generally need all 45 hrs allowed, but based on what seems to be the prevailing AP attitude, I think when my next AP arrives I am going to always schedule 45 hours, and then if I don’t need all the hours on a certain day b/c I get home from work early or their aunt takes them for a playdate with the cousins or whatever, she can get off earlier than planned. Working fewer hours will be a bonus when it happens, instead of the apparent indignety caused by a 45 hour schedule when that was not previously the norm.

Anna April 26, 2010 at 3:02 pm

In the United States, any schedule that is within the rules of the program (no more than 45 hrs a week or 10 hrs a day, with time off) is fair game
Upon matching, the family usually discusses approximate schedule, but commiting to a rigid schedule is not part of the contract. In fact, usually a family gives the schedule to the au pair a week ahead, and it can vary according to the family’s needs.
Working less than 45 hours in US is IMHO a perk. The family pays the same fee and the same stipend if the au pair works less; and the cost per hour for the family stops being attractive compared to the alternatives. A perk is not something that should be expected.

Calif Mom April 27, 2010 at 10:31 am

Agreed, Anna, but the problem here is one of the facts of the situation, and the rules, versus the emotions. Being asked to do more after getting used to enjoying doing less is an emotional shift, and logic is not going to win that argument. The host and AP are talking past each other, from different frames of reference.

Anna April 27, 2010 at 10:33 am

You are right. I was replying to SwissAuPair, because from her posting it sounded like the family was breaching some sort of a contract.

PA AP mom April 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

We have a school year schedule (27.5 hours per week) and a summer schedule (45 hours per week). We let the au pair know about 1 month before the summer starts what the schedule will be, after we have worked out camps, grandparent coverage, etc.

As long as you stay under the 45 hours per week and/or 10 hours per day with the required weekend off, you can arrange the hours however you choose. It is nice to clear it with the AP, but certainly not required.

Anonymous April 26, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Honey, that is what happens sometimes. If a mom is out of work and then finds a new job, her hours change. If the family has a new baby, your hours may change. If my company is purchased or goes out of business, my hours change. C’est la vie

Anonymous April 26, 2010 at 9:18 am

Just a thought as I’m reading the post/comments. I also believe in a face to face meeting – however – depending on the AP and how it went with the LCC last time, I may be inclined to put my expectations in an email as well. So for example, send an email expressing your concerns and letting her know what the expectations will be moving forward…then wrap it up with “I really hope we can sit down and talk about this sometime in the next week or so. Would you be free on Wednesday evening so we can talk?”

This way, if she goes to the LCC with crazy stories or lies about how much you’re making her work, unreasonable expectations, etc…it’s very easy to pull out that email during the “intervention” and say “Well, no, that’s not what I asked from her – this is”.

Hula Gal April 26, 2010 at 10:23 am

This is why I am a fan of the email too. It also helps in instances where her English is not that great. It is easier, in most cases, to read something and absorb it than it is to hear something that has emotion and body language attached and to understand the meaning. I also agree that there is a CYA aspect to the email that can be used in cases where the agency gets involved. I have nothing to add to the original situation because CV layed it out quite well in her response. I do sympathize though and hope it works out well. Finding a replacement au pair after your first 6 months could end up causing you to lose money, depending on the agency.

Taking a computer lunch April 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

For my current AP, whose receptive English is improving but imperfect, I don’t inititiate with an email, but I do follow-up, not so much CYA, but making sure she has a chance to sit down with a dictionary to clarify words she doesn’t truly understand. In a few cases this year, I cc’d my LCC (who has been very supportive), so that she is aware of what the AP is failing to do (some of which involved putting her at risk to break regulations – mostly due to inaction on her part). That way the LCC could follow up with the AP.

When we decided not to extend with the AP, we encouraged her to communicate with the LCC on how to maximize her opportunities to extend with another family (although after a month she has still made absolutely no effort toward getting her driver’s license, which is one of the many reasons we decided not to extend).

TX Mom April 26, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I have found that written guidelines are very valuable. We learned this the hard way after our first hosting experience (deja vu of this story) and we wanted to rematch in month 9 but were miserable for the last 3 months.
Now, before I get to the point of utter frustration and manipulation, my husband and I write down the essential issues we have with the AP as soon as they appear. We give the written note to the AP first as “suggestions” or helpful “tips.” We clarify WHY the issues are important to us. Example: “The children must play outside everyday in the afternoon. They will eat their dinner better and sleep better. Outdoor play is critical for their mind development too.” After the AP’s have time to read it and translate it, then we meet and talk. We try to listen to the AP, but we are pretty firm about our needs. (In this case, I may say, “I understand you think it’s cold; you may wear any jacket, hats, mittens, etc. in the front closet. We live in TX; there is NEVER a day it is too cold to play outside.”)
The written guideline is step 1. (Even if it’s in your handbook!) Step 2, talk. Step 3, Monitor. Step 4, talk more. Step 5, Rematch. All along the way we keep our LCC informed so that she knows we have been reasonable, patient and cooperative.

Anonymous April 26, 2010 at 7:16 pm

The other thing you need to remember is that she will be coached by the boyfriend , perhaps his friends and perhaps his parents. From their point of view, you are taking advantage of her and they have no interest in your needs or scheduling concerns. We may all rag on about LCCs but the reality is that the LCC and her agency have an
interest in keeping both parties happy. Some of the LCCs may be better equipped than others. Also, most aupairs have picked up the information ” on the street ‘ or on the internet that the LCCs are always on the side of the family. So, be aware that you are going to have some invisible people sitting at the bargaining table with you and from their point of view, you are the bad guy. I wouldn’t worry so much about the aupair running to the LCC ; I would be concerned with the input she may be getting from her adult friends
who are protective and not at all objective.

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