Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, January 2020, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry


It seems assisting housekeepers when needed is a standard part of the modern butler’s duties—in line with the downsizing of household staffs a century ago that left the butler rolling up his sleeves and doing work previously covered by housekeepers and others. This trend was re-enforced by the new tools and equipment beginning to appear in households, such as dishwashers (1888) and vacuum cleaners (1905).

And so today, what is it that butlers do particularly for the housekeeper in the spirit of teamwork? Cover weekends, sick days, vacation time, personal time, and covering for emergencies, such as when the housekeeper’s children have a day off from school and the babysitter fell through—or stepping up to the plate and assuming the role of Executive Housekeeper when the current one falls through for one reason or another, until a new one has been found.

“Normally, most of my time is spent as an Estate Manager, but as long as I have time to do it, housekeeping is one of my favorite duties—I love a gleaming interior and exterior! For periods when we have no housekeeper, 40% of my time is spent on housekeeping: Making the beds, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing the laundry. When I have to be the chef also, sometimes, I change my clothes after the house keeping to do the kitchen preps and food service. I am very organized, thorough, and quick, so can make it all happen.”

Without treading on toes, the duties of the Butler or Estates Manager generally include overseeing the housekeeping work; showing newly hired housekeepers the ropes and being a working example.

“I like the housekeepers to be steady, methodical, careful and meticulous. I train them myself, to learn the routines of the current client. Taking as much time as needed for a full understanding of the process, not having a ‘sloppy-get-it-done-as-quickly-as-I-can’ attitude.”

A key challenge with managing the housekeeping staff is boredom creeping in, as routines can create laziness. One solution offered by one Estates Manager is to switch schedules between housekeepers, when there are more than one. Apart from being beneficial for cross training, it gives the housekeepers variety and one is not stuck doing the less-popular functions all the time.

When it comes to the more exquisite and expensive garments, the Estates Manager sometimes finds himself or herself laundering and ironing them where the current staff have yet to acquire the appropriate expertise and professional cleaners are not available locally.

In addition to having a section in the household manual for product lists and what they are used for, it is helpful to stick smart tags on the washers and dryers to translate the settings for ESL (English as a Second Language) staff  and to provide them with laminated instructions in their language explaining the symbols on garments.

Additionally, it is smart to provide checklists for new housekeepers to help guide them in what is needed and wanted by the employer, which may not be the same as in earlier homes worked.

There are a number of areas that can be tricky to train on and execute properly, requiring extra attention to ensure no damage is done in the laundry to employer garments—spot treatment, folding and placing the items at the bottom of the correct pile/stack, steaming, using chemical cleaners (even less-toxic “green products” need careful consideration on certain surfaces), and antiques. It takes working side-by-side and open communication and an understanding attitude to bring about the required work ethic—a single quick instruction won’t do it.

There are other challenges, though, with managing Housekeepers: “Keeping someone on task and not cutting corners as they rush through their tasks, is a challenge, and then seeing them sitting around, being too chatty, watching TV, or preoccupied with their phone. This scenario does not fly with me. I have a rule that phones are for 15-minute breaks or lunchtimes, or extreme emergencies. Otherwise, my phone number is given to family members to reach the housekeeper in emergencies. It turned out to be amazing how few emergencies the employees really had, when I first put this rule in place. I am not authoritative when it comes to a Housekeeper being late because their children are sick or school starts late or gets out early, or if traffic is heavy. It only becomes a problem when it becomes a daily excuse, at which point we discuss. Also, for those without children who do not come in late or leave early, I usually give them a half-day paid leave every few months, so animosity does not build in the group.”

Other points of note with regard to managing the Housekeepers include:

  1. Not reacting to the inevitable blank stares.;
  2. Reading body language and facial expressions properly;
  3. While enjoying each other’s company, reminding staff of the need to be quiet during their breaks and keeping conversations low-volume while working;
  4. Not sitting on the employer’s furniture outside the designated area for the staff.

Finally, asked for a housekeeping challenge, one Butler offered the time he had to clear up a dog mess in the G-5 at 45,000 feet. The cleaning was not the problem, but there were no windows to open to provide relief to the sense of smell.

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.