Newsletter Steven Ferry

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

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry

Managing individuals with bad attitudes

This is a subject that, unless we are living in a tent in the middle of the Sahara desert, we have all experienced at one time or another. Thanks to those who were willing to share from a professional point of view. I know sometimes these subjects make butlers and household/estate(s) managers clam up for reasons of discretion, but if both butler and the person they are discussing remain anonymous, then no harm done, no foul, no penalty. Discussing this elephant in the room helps members know what to expect and how they might handle the situation, that they are not alone, and not to take such encounters personally. This helps them and the person with whom they are dealing. So our thanks to those who were willing to share.

Asked for attitude problems with staff, one estate manager noted that “I had a housekeeper who would find a quiet spot in the house to lie down and sleep! Her favorite areas were the garage in between cars and a dark corner in the basement. Granted it’s a big house and I can’t always hear or see staff working, but when it was really quiet, I would go searching for her! After finding her a couple of times, I had no choice but to fire her.

“Another time I had a housekeeper looking at personal items of family members, such as reading a teenage daughter’s diary, sitting in an upstairs bedroom with her feet up reading magazines, and even trying on the Principal’s (Mrs.) clothing! All the while, this housekeeper was complaining that she was not able to complete her daily assignments. I spent time reviewing her list and modifying it where possible and then, finally, her co-worker told me what she was doing. I immediately called the housekeeper in question at home (it was her day off) and questioned her. She admitted everything, so I told her that her actions were unacceptable for the household. She asked if she could have a second chance but I had to decline and fired her.

“These incidents happened during the early years of hiring for the house, and my principal and I have used them as learning tools for future hires to good effect: We now have long-term employees who, when they were hired, I made it a point to outline expected behavior, job duties, and standards.”

Another butler told the following story: “I could write a book on this topic, but the eight pages of signed disclaimers as well as personal integrity will not allow me to divulge any of the craziness that I have witnessed over my years in private service. I am however able to share a story that has a hard lesson attached.

“The family chef I had the true pleasure of working with was previously employed by a very high-profile and wealthy patriarch in our community. Unfortunately, as with so many of us, the patriarch had become feeble in his dotage and mentally unable to care for himself without assistance. My friend was asked by the family if he would be willing to include personal care with his cooking duties. The family would then reward him for his extra efforts when the time came. After agreeing to the family terms, the staff was reduced to a housekeeper, a butler, and my friend, the personal chef/care giver.

“During the last two weeks of the patriarch’s life, valuable items such as jewelry, paintings—anything that could be removed easily from the home, started to disappear. My friend noticed the newly created bare spots on the walls and cupboards but did not say anything as he went about his duties—changing adult diapers and bathing duties. Upon the death of the patriarch, the family members in conjunction with the family lawyers, announced to the housekeeper and my friend that they were being dismissed without any special benefits and were told to be thankful that charges would not be pressed for the missing items that the butler reported as now stolen, accusing my friend and housekeeper of the thefts.

“The butler, who was the actual perpetrator, was rewarded with a generous financial gift, the items he absconded with, as well as a good reference for future employment. You could say the Butler really did do it! Of note is that he was eventually terminated from his new position for theft. The hard lesson learned was that my friend should have (immediately) reported the missing items to a family member or the authorities.”

Another butler reported the following: “A previous employer made the decision to hire the brother of a former work colleague who had just left the military and needed a good job. He was given the title of Property Manager but knew nothing about property management nor about working in private service. His attitude from the beginning was that he was above the position he was handed. He refused to submit weekly reports, never answered his mobile, talked down to other staff members, spent a great deal of time off site, and to cap it off, he blatantly disliked me.

“When presented with these facts, my employer told me to: ‘make the best of it.’  I responded by completely ignoring the Property Manager with the exception of e-mails pertaining to his job. In effect, I carried on just as I had before he was hired. At first, he complained to the other staff members, but they had no reason to take his side.

“He eventually convinced my employer that he should be placed in charge of the security guards, which lead ultimately to his becoming one of them. Because the guards only worked nights, I rarely had to see him. A few months later, I was allowed to hire a brilliant Property Manager who exceeded all expectations and impressed my employer daily. As a result, I was given frequent praise for my ability to manage efficiently the large and complex staff.”

Bad attitudes are not the sole domain of staff: Principals and guests also have been known to harbour them, as one butler noted:

“We have had some issues with family members over the years. Many times, family members are at the residence alone when the principals are at work or appointments. They will ask staff to do things for them during the day—go shopping and pick up certain items, have certain foods prepared above and beyond the meals already being prepared for the principals, do laundry and iron items, babysit younger children, etc. While we have always been happy to do this, some family members do take it too far, expecting the staff to wait upon them hand and foot, serve their every need. The solution? Accommodate their requests, particularly as the principal is very generous with family members. If timing became an issue, I would become involved, but we usually took care of everything.”

Another butler shared that “I encountered a weekend guest who truly was ‘rotten to the core.’  He was horribly rude to the male staff members and made very sexist comments about the female staff members. In front of my employer, he slithered around with a creepy, artificial smile pasted on his face. He would ask for things that, when presented, he would deny requesting. He lied regarding his whereabouts to both staff and my employer. He cornered a housemaid in the laundry room but was interrupted before he could do anything vile. And he demanded to see the security monitors ‘because he was curious.’ It was a very tense and challenging weekend for all the household staff, which our employer was apparently unaware of. It was his private secretary who noted the tension and asked me, in confidence, if there were any ‘concerns’ about the house guest. I simply offered an affirmative nod. The next day, after the guest had departed, the private secretary  whispered discretely in my ear as we passed on a landing, ‘That snake will not be returning.’

“I am very sorry to report that I have worked for too many employers who were ‘bad characters.’ Some were mean for sport, some were constant liars, and others were bullies who made staff feel threatened and unsafe. Over time, my tolerance for employers who are bad characters has dropped. A gap on my CV/resume is far better than ever again enduring an employer who abuses, manipulates, or bullies staff—and no amount of money offered would be enough to stay with them.”

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.