Maid in Indonesia: how to hire, fire (and re-hire) domestic staff

Instant expats guide to household staffThis information is for expats in Indonesia. It’s based on our experience here at the Sharehouse, including the recently-updated Tips for Managing Household Staff in Indonesia.  That post has advice, such as don’t have people you can’t trust in your house; and don’t be surprised to when staffers quit and then reapply for work a few months later.

Meanwhile, this page has a dozen broad observations about the role of the expat housekeeper and the responsibility of managing her. And I’ve tried to put the themes that — in our experience — just won’t go away, first.

Specific suggestions are difficult since circumstances and preferences vary significantly among expats – from those who “need” a  full staff (including driver, cook, maids, houseman, gardener, etc) to those who arrive in Indonesia equally convinced they won’t be hiring anyone. Instant Expat says you need at least two domestic helpers, because that will let you get more done in Indonesia. The cross-cultural management experience may look good on your CV also.

12 observations about managing household staff in Indonesia

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1. Household employees in Jakarta perform a normal job in a unique socio-cultural context. Normal management practices and various cultural values and assumptions mostly apply;  what you learned from Jane Austen and Kathryn Stockett mostly doesn’t. Demand for capable housekeepers is high in Jakarta – very high if you require foreign language skills.  In theory, professional references have become more important for domestic staff and serve the interests of the household and the staffer. What we see, however, is that maids come and go without a lot of paperwork. So if you’re no longer going to employ your maid, it’s a safe bet that someone is.

2. Salary doesn’t guarantee job satisfaction or longevity. Factors that are just as important include:

  • the perception held by your maid’s friends and family of the work she does for your household
  • the work environment itself
  • how the job fits into her long-term goals and objectives (often including marriage, divorce, remarriage, retirement, etc).

What about getting to live or work in a “nice” house or neighborhood? Well, my bet is that she’d much rather be back in her  “barrio” or village. Anyway, Indonesians very often define “nice” in social, not material, terms.

3. Indonesian maids often give little notice before quitting. They may leave to care for an elderly parent or a child who is ill or about to give birth. Or maybe a romantic interest has jelled or a savings target has been reached. Don’t overestimate your ability to find out the reason or blame yourself. Most of all, don’t be surprised if your maid comes back. The re-hire decision is common but tough. Go with your gut as you need to be able to trust the people who work for you.

4. Always on the lookout for talent means promoting your household as a good place to work. That will ensure a recruiting pool in the event you lose someone. Networking with people who hire domestic workers and with workers themselves is important. Treat your staff fairly and people will find out (opposite is also true.) Finally, if you sense that your Jakarta expat life would implode without your staff. then redundancy is crucial;’ you need at least two people (even if you live in a small apartment) and a mechanism so they can take leave. If you’ve ever held a job, then you know that leave can be a deal breaker.

5. Laundry is the least of it. Depending on just how much benefit you plan to derive from domestic staffing arrangements in Indonesia, be aware what you actually need is someone with a very unique skill set:  the ability to put up with you and your household; work there; and possibly even live there. It’s neither impossible nor particularly easy to find that person. Ask yourself: why would my maid want to work here? Well, if she’s not getting any benefit in terms of new challenges, responsibility and relationships, then she may well be planning her next move.

6. Exploitation and duress won’t work. You owe it yourself to find domestic staffers who are honest and loyal and then reciprocate yourself. If your maid is taking substantial unfair advantage of your household, then you owe it to yourself to find a new one.  At the same time, an easygoing approach to maid management can be very effective. There’s a fine line between ignorance and insult: if you’ve done your best to explain where you’re coming from (because you’re the foreigner, right?) and your maid is coming back with “I have no idea if that’s cheese or mayonnaise on your sandwich because I personally don’t eat stuff like that” . . . well, that’s different. Being easygoing isn’t a remedy for nonsense.

7. Communications count for a lot. The objective is to achieve some minimal level of communications functionality despite the language and culture gaps. At some level, your staffer needs to do what you want done. Communicating also increases trust. It may even be the solution where a staffer is “afraid” of you or else trying to boss your around — since both of these can be communications-avoidance scenarios.  Still, it makes sense to avoid conflict — for all the normal business reasons, plus a lot of locally-specific ones. Engaging the assistance of mutually trusted third parties for hiring, firing and conflict resolution very often works — and that’s why people do it.

8. Ad hoc, spontaneous training works; got a minute, give a lesson. (Got adhesive? Create a couple of organization labels and affix to drawers in a chest as your maid observes).

9. Hiring people who live nearby — unless you envision some type of privacy/ neighborhood gossip downside – then this makes plenty of sense, as gridlock grips Jakarta.

10. In-house nirvana is sometimes just a matter of finding the right person (who has experience managing households) and getting out of her way. Other times you need to make a list of tasks, provide clues on relative priority and work method, follow up, re-task, etc. Minimal involvement can make a big difference. Demystifying staffers on new technology can be very cost-effective. Demonstrate to your maid that you don’t have the deepest understanding of all the buttons on the washing machine either — that can create a breakthrough for her.

While thoroughness is lovely, so is time management ability and people skills. But no one is going to have the entire package. Cross-train as necessary and let staffers grow into new roles. If the maid can walk across the street and solve a vexing issue involving the neighbors while you finish up the ironing, why not.

11. Smart rule enforcement is crucial; but soon after you start you’ll learn why Jakarta (should you be so lucky : ) is better known for tolerance than discipline. Give yourself some easy wins upfront by working out in advance the criteria for breach, penalties, lenience, etc. Be very prepared to admit that some of your practices aren’t exactly the best (Indonesian leaders always do this) but that you’re aware and looking for new approaches.

12. Losing a staffer can be an important opportunity for building skills and confidence. You or someone in your household might learn to cook or speak Indonesian and it might not have happened otherwise.

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