Au pairs, by definition, come from another country; it’s a special visa program run partly by the U.S. State Department (DOS), allowing young people to spend up to two years in the U.S. living with a family and providing childcare in return for a small salary. (See "Should You Hire a Foreign Au Pair to Care for Your Children?" for a review of the basic program.)
Because of the geographical barriers, host families don’t often get to meet prospective au pairs in person before making their choice.
Even after the intermediary agency has gone over your application and preselected likely candidates for you, making your final choices by reading paperwork and talking over the phone can be a challenging task. And the stakes are high: The person you choose will be not only taking care of your children, but living in your house, sitting at your dinner table, and riding in your car on family vacations.
Some parents choose to fly to the au pair’s country for an interview; or at least learn how to use Skype or a similar online video chat program. If you travel, you should be able to arrange with the au pair agency to meet more than one prospect during your trip.
Some parents even take a trip before signing up with an au pair agency, meet a young girl that they like, and then contact an agency to arrange for her to come (referred to as a prematch). The agencies aren’t enthusiastic about such arrangements, however, because both the au pairs and the parents tend to regard the agency as a trivial intermediary in the process, which reduces their authority in carrying out the various arrangements and resolving any disputes that later arise.
If you cannot arrange a trip to meet au pair candidates in person, here are some steps for making the most of the materials and screening methods available to you:
- Carefully review the agency-provided written materials. The intermediary agency should give you a packet on each candidate (exactly what is in that packet depends on the agency). These materials will not tell you everything, but are an important starting point. For one thing, they can help you develop questions for when you talk with the candidate. Consider also whether parts of the written materials leave room for fudging. For example, if the application asks the au pair to check “yes” or “no” as to whether he or she can drive, anyone minimally capable of handling a car will probably check “yes” – so you’ll want to ask followup questions, particularly if the au pair will be driving your children around.
- Decide what type of personality you are seeking. You not only want someone who will be good with your children, but with whom you can comfortably live.
- Have more than one phone conversation. Many agencies will, in fact, arrange for you to make phone calls to au pair candidates free of charge. During your first conversation, make clear that you will not be making a decision during that call. Start by telling the applicant about your family. Then ask about the basics, such as her experience with children, motivation, and so forth. Don’t worry about going over matters that appear to have been covered in the application. Ask about the candidate’s friends and family and likes and dislikes, to get a sense of what he or she is like as a person. If you feel good about the conversation, sleep on it, then develop follow-up questions for the next one. Keep talking until you are comfortable that you have a good sense of the person and have resolved any doubts or prickles of intuition. Make sure both you and your spouse or partner are involved in these conversations, even if it’s not at the same time.
- Write up and send the candidate your house rules. For example, you might specify no overnight boyfriends, no having friends visit while you are out of the house, and no partying all night. If this makes the au pair feel like life is being overly restricted, it is better if you each make your decision accordingly.
- Talk with any previous host families. Your best candidate may be someone who is already in the United States and switching from another host family. Some arrangements just don’t work out, so don’t automatically assume the problem was with the au pair. But if it was, you will, of course, want to hear about it. Hopefully, the agency you have chosen will allow this. In other cases, the au pair might have been an au pair before, and maxed out her time in the United States on the visa, then waited for two years, after which the person is allowed to come back again as an au pair.
For more information, see Nolo’s book, Nannies & Au Pairs; Hiring In-Home Child Care.