From the May 2000 issue of Startups

Fifteen years ago, I did something that has improved my quality of life more than anything-I hired a personal assistant. She does my routine tasks as well or better than I could have done them. (The vast majority of respondents to my personal assistant ads are female so I use the feminine article here-no sexism intended.) That wrings 16 hours out of a 10-hour workday because it frees me up to do things I'd rather do. And she doesn't cost me a dime. In fact, she makes me money because with the extra time I gain as a result of her work, I earn money in excess of her salary. Besides, it's simply fun to have a nice person around-working at home can get lonely.

My assistant runs my errands, does light housekeeping, makes meals, tends plants, maintains my aquarium and is a sounding board. (She, for example, reviewed a draft of this article.) My previous assistant was handy, so he used to fix things around the house.

You may be surprised to know I don't have my assistant answer my phone. I screen my calls using my answering machine, pick up those I want, and let the machine record the others. That way I know every call is handled precisely how I like it, and with my complex business, that's best.

Why You Might Worry and Why You Needn't

There are a host of concerns you might have if you've never hired an employee to work in your home, much less a personal assistant. Here's why you don't need to worry:

  • I'm afraid to have a stranger in my house.
    If you use the approaches to hiring, training and managing that I'll outline, you'll have reduced your risk to a level that even most worrywarts can accept. I have had assistants in my home for 15 years, and my most significant loss was some rose seeds I had bred.
  • I worry that my personal life will be an open book.
    This hasn't been a problem for me, mainly because my life is embarrassingly choirboy-like. But even if my predilections were more bacchanalian, if I hired someone I liked, I probably wouldn't mind her knowing my peccadilloes.

If you want some things private, a small safe may hide them: the antidepressants, the documents related to your felony conviction, and the financial statements that say your net worth is 17 cents.

  • Will the city allow me to have employees in my residence?
    In many but not all areas, zoning rules allow you to have a personal assistant in your home. Check with your local zoning department to be sure.
  • I can't afford an assistant.
    You probably can't afford to forego an assistant. Even if your business is making no money, having someone to free you to build your business will probably pay off.

Of course, your personal assistant could be your personal nightmare. For example, she rifles through your papers and figures out how to rob you blind. Angry with you, she pickets your street with a sign saying you're an unfair employer. Or more likely, after all the time you took to train her, she turns out to be more hassle than she's worth or she simply quits.

The good news is that by hiring, training and managing wisely, you'll probably be thrilled you have an assistant.

Hiring Smart

When I'm looking for a new employee, I usually cast a wide net so I have plenty of applicants to choose from. My most fertile source of assistants: students at the local college. I place an ad in the student newspaper or at Jobtrak.com, which offers student employment job listings for thousands of colleges around the country.

Here was my most recent ad:
Part-time personal assistant. The only musts: common sense, quick learner, honesty. Flexible hours, very pleasant home-office work environment, nice boss. Main tasks: errands, tending plants, light housekeeping, being my sounding board. Call 555-5555.

You might be surprised that I put my phone number in the ad rather than ask for a resume. This position requires no prior experience, so a resume isn't a particularly helpful screening device-I want to hear their voices. I usually get fewer than a dozen responses to my ad, so it's no big deal talking to every applicant.

I especially look for students who are just beginning their studies. It takes me quite a while to train a new assistant so I'd like them to stay as long as possible. I particularly like graduate students because they tend to be more mature and intelligent. The disadvantage of hiring students is that eventually they have a good reason to leave-their school workload gets heavy, they find career-related internships or they graduate.

In addition to my ad aimed at students, I usually place an ad in my neighborhood weekly newspaper. Since it's a part-time, modest-paying position, the job is most appealing to people who live nearby. Also, my neighborhood has a particular character. People who like living here are likely to enjoy working for me and vice-versa.

When evaluating applicants, I tend to trust my first instincts. I believe I can quickly tell on the phone if the applicant is bright and easy to deal with. If they don't feel right within the first minute, I'll rarely invite them to interview with me in person. The first questions I normally ask are, "Why would you want a job like this?" and "What do you hope this job will be like?" It's important I get a sense of whether they'd actually be happy in the job. (If they're happy, they're more likely to do a good job and to stay.)

I then run down all the job's tasks and ask how they feel about doing them. If I sense much reluctance, I know they're wrong for the job. If the chemistry feels good and their answers fit the bill, I call them in for an interview.

The interview is a few minutes of Q&A and a few minutes of simulations: What would you do in this situation? For example, I might show them how to prune a rose bush. If they learn quickly and seem to enjoy the process, great. Also, because one of my assistant's jobs is to greet my clients, they must look credible-a nose ring and tatooed arms won't work.

Here's how I check a finalist's references. I call and say something like, "I'm hiring for a very important position-my personal assistant. She gets keys to my home and car and essentially has the run of my house. She needs to be someone absolutely trustworthy as well as a quick learner with common sense. As you might imagine, I'm a little nervous about hiring someone for such a position. 'Jane' has applied for the job. Are you in a position to tell me whether I'd be wise to hire her?" I usually call three references. Unless all three sing her praises, I'll probably turn her down. If all her work has been for organizations that have a policy against giving references, I'll leave this message, "Only call back if you can give an excellent personal reference for her. If not, no need to call back." With a good candidate, most of the references will return my call.

Finally, I hire the person on a trial basis, saying, "Let's try it out for a few days and we'll both see how we feel." Although I live in an "at-will" state, in which theoretically an employer or employee can terminate the relationship at-will, employees have in fact often successfully sued, claiming they believed the job would be permanent and suffered economic and psychological loss when it turned out not to be. A clearly agreed-to trial period can avoid such lawsuits. And I've found that generally, within the first few days, I can gain great confidence as to whether the candidate will work out.

Training Smart

I've found that the best way to train my assistant is to show her how I like a task done, watch her do it and give her feedback until she's pretty much got it down. If something is complicated, I invite her to jot down notes to help remind herself how to do it. If I'm not particular about how a task is done, I encourage my assistant to try it her way.

It's understandable that a new employee is nervous and likely to make mistakes, so I minimize criticism unless I'm afraid my lack of criticism will be perceived as endorsing something I disapprove of, like smoking in my house.

My natural tendency is to be particularly nice in the beginning to help build the relationship. I've found, however, that's risky. If later I'm not quite as friendly (for example, if I don't spend as much time chatting), the assistant might start to get disenchanted, feeling that, having gotten to know them, I like them less. So I try to interact in the beginning much as I will later.

Managing Smart

Open communication is key. After the first day, I'll ask my assistant to sit down with me-that lets her know I take this seriously-and ask, "Well, how was your day? Truthfully, what are you liking? Not liking?" I'll do that again in a week, again after a few weeks and then every few months, no matter how long she's been working for me.

Where possible, I try to give her nonroutine tasks and ask her opinion about things, so she feels valuable and so I can determine how much I can delegate to her.

If at all possible, I treat her more as a valued colleague than as an employee. Even though she may be doing my laundry, I treat her with the same respect I'd afford my physician. However, I don't make myself available as a friend. Her job is to save me time, not add one more name to the list of friends to whom I owe phone calls. I do, however, make clear that in an emergency, she can count on me 24 hours a days, seven days a week.

I give small raises every few months, asked for or not. It's a tangible sign of appreciation and reflects the truth that she's more valuable to me the longer she stays-after a few months, she knows everything necessary to work successfully for me.

Also, every few months and on special occasions, I take my assistant out to lunch. My assistants have really valued that. At that lunch, I focus primarily on them, their lives and their needs-not mine.

Despite the modest pay, the usually routine work, and that most of my assistants have been students, my personal assistants have stayed with me an average of two years. All but one (the one who stole those rose seeds) parted with me on excellent terms, and I've been grateful for their being an important part of my life.


Dr. Marty Nemko is a homebased career counselor, writer and speaker. His column appears on the front page of the employment section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. He hosts Work with Marty Nemko on a NPR affiliate in San Francisco. His latest book is Cool Careers for Dummies.