1. Know what you're looking for. If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition.... Do those words sound familiar? They're the first lines of the most famous Help Wanted ad ever written -- the one that resulted in the employment of Mary Poppins herself. So, just like little Jane and Michael Banks did (and really, you can't argue with their results), begin your search by making a list of the qualities, skills, and duties that matter most to you. Then write a detailed ad. Even if you're not planning to place it anywhere, there's nothing like being forced to really focus on whether "Must Drive" or "Must Love Pets" comes first or to ponder whether there is a person who is both "Mature and High Energy." If you do place an ad, these parameters will weed out people who don't have the skills you're looking for (making your job easier) and, most important, help keep you focused while you're interviewing and checking references.
2. Interview references. To get a clear picture of the person you're thinking of hiring, speak with as many former employers as you can. Always be direct and specific. "Try asking questions that will get detailed answers like: 'Describe three things the nanny did to have fun with the kids,' or 'Can you tell me about a time when the children needed to be disciplined and how she handled it?'" says Lawrence Pfaff, PhD, professor of psychology at Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, and an employment consultant. And remember, nobody is perfect, so make it your goal to elicit at least one negative from everyone you talk to. Questions like: "What was the one thing that annoyed you most?" or "What was her best and worst quality?" can help you dig a little deeper for information that references won't necessarily volunteer on their own.
Be just as direct about possible criminal behavior, says Mary Cagnetta, executive vice president of Mind Your Business, a background investigation firm in Warren, New Jersey. Ask whether there were any signs of substance abuse and whether there was ever trouble with long-distance calls or absenteeism. Many families feel protective of former caregivers, warts and all, so they might not offer up this kind of information without being asked point-blank.
Finally, be on the lookout for bogus references -- such as a friend masquerading as a former employer. "That's the biggest problem we run into when we screen nannies," says Pat Cascio, president of Morningside Nannies, an agency in Houston. Fakes often give themselves away by bungling details about employment dates and children's ages. Make sure information from the reference and the caregiver match up.
3. Do a background check. This may feel awkward, but it's routine in the workplace, and it's important that you think of yourself as an employer. Plus, if a person has nothing to hide, she's not going to mind. Though it's expensive -- about $100! -- it's really the only way to find out many of the things that fill a mom with dread. If you're going to do it, make sure it's a thorough investigation that includes a search of criminal records, a Social Security-number verification, and a driving-record check. Tread carefully when it comes to online investigation agencies. Many only look at the records available on the Internet, which comprise just a small percentage of actual criminal files. "If it says 'nationwide criminal check,' that's a real red flag. There's no such thing," says Lynn Peterson, founder of PFC Information Services, a background-checking agency. There's an FBI database, but it's incomplete, and doesn't include misdemeanors that parents need to know about, like shoplifting, petty theft, or assault.
Typically, you'll need your candidate's written consent and Social Security number; the check will take three or four days to complete. The good news is that most reports come back clean -- only about 7 percent of background checks that Peterson runs turn up criminal problems -- most of them misdemeanors. If you're considering hiring someone who is not legally permitted to work in the United States, you're not going to be able to do an effective check because most undocumented workers don't have a Social Security number.
Though there's really no less expensive or more hassle-free way to obtain this kind of information, you could bluff and say that you intend to do a background check -- this might scare off those that have something to hide.