Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, May 2018, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Dealing with Difficult Employers

Some very interesting responses to this topic. Thanks, as always, to those who cared to share. They have been kept anonymous, as we are discussing difficulties with prior employers.

“I work with an incredible family – no issues here!”

“In 35 years of service, I have had four clients I worked with who had high turn over, expected unrealistic work hours, and were unjustly rude or maybe just unhappy. My policy is that I do not stay in a position in which I have on-going difficulty with the employer: If anything cannot be resolved in the first three months, it usually just isn’t a good fit and there is always another opportunity to pursue. Luckily, I had one employer for 13 years, 3 employers for 5 years each, and then elderly clients who[m I served until their passing, who] totaled 7 years.”

“I had a doozy, once: She was a bully who yelled, screamed, and swore. I dealt with her for one-and-a-half years by avoiding confrontations. I never offered an opinion and understood that she was always right, although I never said so; instead I told her I “understood” her direction. When handled in this way, she would mellow somewhat. The funny thing is that during the interview, she asked what she should know about me, and my reply was that I did not like yelling. Naturally, I did resign.”

One butler responded emphatically in the affirmative on the question of ever having had to deal with difficult employers: “Many—I feel like I’m the butler always being sent in to manage clients that just can’t be made happy—those who yell, scream, have unrealistic expectations, and no concern whatsoever for the lives of their staff. What I find works best is never disagreeing with them, and working very hard to make them happy. Being smart, anticipating needs and listening to what they need and following through on it.”

Another butler reported that out of four past employers, two were difficult. “These two gentlemen had different beginnings, one being born and raised as a poor boy in the 20’s and 30’s in the Jewish Bronx of New York, while the other was born and raised in the same time period with the proverbial silver spoon protruding ever so noticeable from his mouth as a successful banker’s son in Indiana.

“The beginnings may have been totally different, but the endings were almost identical, unfortunately for me as well as for them, as the pain and misery finally won out in the end.  Watching these men advance so slowly and painfully towards their deaths was equally painful for me, but on the other hand very educational, because these experiences taught me what to avoid during my own life-ending transition.

“Both men had great wealth and over time discovered that their money really did buy them anything they wanted at any time—people were afraid to say ‘No!’ I believe money changed them into very hateful and untrusting individuals.  I soon discovered that these two men had no real friends! In their thinking, everyone only wanted their money, not their friendship or advice.  I have to agree, because I discovered this statement to be more fact than fiction.  I believe that their way of protecting themselves was to create a Scrooge-like personality that kept the beggars at bay, while unfortunately isolating the principals from everyone.

“I was successful in dealing with these men because I was able to use their protective devises against them, thereby exposing me to a warm caring person that was buried deeply under the almost un-penetrable exterior that was portrayed to practically everyone they knew, especially their family members.

“I was able to achieve this task by simply being easy going, soft spoken, and showing genuine care for their safety—while unfortunately and simultaneously, taking much insult and grief from them.  I found the insult stage was a mind-game technique that I have seen utilized by very bored people needing something to do—why not mess with the staff to make your own life more interesting?  This is wrong in so many ways, but I have seen it play out more than once while working for the über-wealthy.

“The discussion of personal income was another for-sure way to elevate the principal’s excitement level and should be avoided except during the annual review….if you are fortunate enough to have one, that is.  Because I was on a fixed income, money became a non-issue until an unexpected income increase became the topic of discussion…watch out, you would have thought the world was coming to an end!

“In time, about a year or so after working directly with my principal, I was no longer seen as a threat.  I had finally earned the trust that I deserved and our one-on-one time together grew into respectable give-and-take conversation.  The real trick was carefully maintaining that status quo and being aware that, in the public eye, you were usually still treated with visible disdain and disrespect. You have to understand that it’s all part of the game some rich play to avoid boredom. If you do not have the thick skin you need to put up with this nonsense, then you need to be employed somewhere else.”

Another butler has had quite some experience with extremely difficult employers: “In one situation, the Mrs. did not want a formal butler, but the Mr. did. I did my best to serve them both, hoping to eventually win her acceptance. Sadly, she showed such distain for my very presence in her home that even the children would grow tense when I walked into the room. She refused to allow me to do anything for her, even the simple act of opening a door. Mr. relished my valet work for him and appreciated my exceptional silver-service skills at dinner, but ultimately he realized that his wife would never be comfortable with a butler on staff, so I was dismissed.

“In a different situation, I found myself working for a couple who seemed to enjoy being mean for sport. I was often belittled or criticized in front of their guests. They would often watch me complete a task and then instruct me to repeat it because ‘It was below standard’ (rather than stopping me in the middle of the task to correct something). I was sometimes sent out into the snow or rain to collect an item which could easily have been delivered. Once I returned with the item, they would complain that I had been out of the house for an unreasonable amount of time and that I was a disgrace because my pant legs were now wet. During my tenure with them, they slowly dismissed other staff members and gave me their duties without discussion. But the meanest thing they would do was to hold me hostage in the evenings. I never knew what time I would be allowed to depart, often standing in the dark kitchen unable to start a project because I was anxiously waiting for a request to be barked over the intercom system. Eventually, I would find the courage to approach them to ask if there would be anything else before I left.  One or both of them would look up at me with disgust and growl ‘Leave if you must!’

“In both situations, I knew the difficulty was with them, not me. Co-workers, vendors, dinner guests, colleagues, friends of the employers and even the dog walker commended me for my professionalism, excellent skills and strong gentleness. In both situations, I simply kept calm and carried on to the best of my abilities. I would not become a “victim” nor would I compromise standards. To do so would have been to fail as a butler and to dishonour my profession. I was employed to provide exceptional formal butler service and I did so, despite finding myself with difficult employers.”

“And one late-entry response who has “had the pleasure of working for a difficult employer” because of “the total lack of communication between him and the staff, including me. There was no communication about expectations, wishes, likes, or dislikes. The only information we received was when something was not according to his wishes. Very often without telling us what exactly he would like instead. The lack of respect for the staff resulted also in aggression towards the staff. Threats, shouting, and physical maltreatment were used to correct the staff.  Although this concerned only the lower staff, mostly from Asia, I still use the expression ‘Modern Slavery’ when talking about this household.

“For all the other clients I have worked with during my career; there will always be some that are more demanding than others. Some that are nicer to us as staff than others. And some that are easier to communicate with than others. And although it is sometimes easier and nicer to have an “easy one”, if a “difficult one” is leaving the property with a happy face, I find it more fulfilling from a professional point of view.

“What worked well in managing the worst one….there was no other option than to leave the household. For all others, I believe the magic word is communication. It just takes the right approach. Find out how to communicate with the specific employer. One of the most important things is to be very clear to him/her from your side as well. I very often see that staff is afraid to tell the truth, or say ‘No, unfortunately that is not possible’ to an employer.
My best experience from my time as a hotel/cruise butler was to work with different employers every couple of days. It taught me how to “read” the guest and adapt to them within a very short time. I still use these skills when we receive guests, and would recommend every butler fresh out of Butler school to do a year at least in the hotel industry.”

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.