Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I fired my first employee a month ago. The irony is that I spent almost 19 years as an employment attorney and in that time advised countless employers on how to properly terminate literally hundreds of employees. I gave seminars and wrote articles on the subject. But I had never fired anyone, a fact I admitted when giving advice to my clients. And I gave good advice; my problem was that I didn’t follow it with respect to Olga.

Rule #1 – Hire Well. Olga wasn’t our first choice of housekeeper, called an “empleada” (employee) or “chica” here although I never referred to her as “chica” as I find it utterly disrespectful to call a grown woman “girl.” When we visited the school before moving here we had secured our housing and, we thought, a wonderful empleada, Esther. But as our now-friend Sarah was moving here with 2 year old twins, Matt’s boss decreed that Esther, who is great with kids, would work for Sarah. So we were out of luck. Matt’s coworker, Robert, offered to have Olga work for us – his wife and daughter had moved to the US and he was planning to leave Peru in December, so he didn’t need her anymore. Robert said Olga was honest, reliable and quiet. As we had no idea how to find someone suitable, and I was tired of cleaning our house after 2 weeks (hey, it’s dusty here!), we went the easy route and arranged to meet Olga.

The meeting didn’t go well. We had a horrible time trying to communicate, but attributed that to our Spanish deficiency. But we agreed to hire her because it was the path of least resistance – even though everyone from the maintenance workers at Matt’s schools to cab drivers to Esther herself had a wife, friend, cousin, who needed a job, it was too daunting to think about having the awkward interview again. But from day one I bemoaned that Olga was no Esther.

Rule #2 – Set Clear Expectations. Obviously, housekeepers are not the norm in the US, so I had no experience with having someone in my home 5 days a week. Yes, you are rolling your eyes and cursing me under your breath right now, but realize that in Peru it is the culture to hire people if you are middle class (and they usually work a half day on Saturday for you too). Even Matt’s teachers who complain to me about money and have to work extra jobs all have empleadas. Normally, an empleada does EVERYTHING for you – shops, cooks, cleans, does laundry, deals with service providers, pays bills, watches the kids, etc. Olga told us she didn’t cook, and I didn’t realize the full job of an empleada, so when she began she cleaned and did laundry. Matt and I joked that she had the best deal in town as with only two of us in the house, half the house is basically unused and our laundry minimal.

After about 6 weeks I went home for Angela and Craig’s wedding and their Colombian friend Jorge asked me how things were going in South America. I confessed that I was having a hard time with Olga – she cleaned okay, but she was obsessed with laundry – she would spend hours every day washing our clothes and we have a washer and dryer! Jorge tried to explain the culture of help and assured me that Olga wanted more to do and that I had to be firm about asking. He even made me practice some phrases. And he told me to fire her if I didn’t like her.

I returned to Peru confident that I could improve the relationship and feel less awkward in my own home. Because that was a big part of the issue – I was tiptoeing around Olga, who would take over 2 hours just to wash some dinner dishes from the prior night. Meanwhile I would be starving, waiting for her to get out of the kitchen so I could eat my breakfast. So I tried Jorge’s suggestions. I asked her to do laundry less often, to pay the one utility bill that can’t be paid on-line, to clean the dining room when I was having guests for lunch, to buy the cleaning supplies when she told me she was out of them … and had mixed success. She would never shop for me (except when I was terribly ill because  I think she knew she had to as Matt was at work) and would never do something when I asked – usually a few hours or days later – and she continued the incessant laundry. But she wasn’t a bad person and as I didn’t want to clean my own house and had plenty of time to shop and clean, I just complained instead of taking direct action.

Rule #3 – Don’t Ignore a Problem. As our Spanish improved, it became clear that while we were (and are) by no means fluent, we were generally understandable to other Peruvians. But not to Olga. Eventually we realized that she seemed to have a hard time communicating with other Peruvians too, not just us. She would look at the speaker and silently form words before responding. Needless to say, I was not learning any Spanish from her and our communication didn’t improve. In fact, I would clean things myself instead of asking her because it wasn’t worth my effort.

Rule #4 – Terminate Don’t Procrastinate. This is the most important rule of all and I sure broke it. For years I counseled clients to swiftly terminate when warranted because who knows what might happen in the interim between the decision and the act. I had decided to fire Olga – her performance had deteriorated.  She was spending endless hours in our house but doing little more than basic cleaning and laundry, she told us late one Friday night that she would be absent the following Monday and Tuesday due to a doctor appointment in Lima and I had been home all day but she hadn’t mentioned it (and honestly, we would have likely offered to pay her airfare so she could have avoided the 18 hour bus ride each way), she brought a stranger to the house to help her one day because she was leaving early and only told me her plans because I saw the woman and asked who she was… I was ticked. I had inquired about her doctor visit, not sure how much was appropriate to ask, and she gave me some vague answer about a problem with her spine and her stomach and assured me she could work. But I had finally had enough and an American friend who was returning to the US wanted me to hire her empleada, Maria. I had met Maria and loved her – another Esther, warm, friendly and could more or less understand me! The problem was that I couldn’t hire Maria for another few weeks and we were going on vacation and didn’t want the house vacant, so I wanted to keep Olga for just another month.

And then it got worse. Several times I saw her on the street when she was supposed to be working and once she left a workman in my house unattended. She always looked guilty when I saw her and would say she was getting lunch or that she had a bill she had to pay that day. I joked to Matt that I thought she had a boyfriend she was visiting. Finally, one morning I returned to the house unexpectedly and caught her leaving the house. When I asked where she was going she told me she was getting a friend to come help her. I asked why she would need help and she made a lame excuse about not reaching the high windows (mind you, she had never cleaned the windows before). I told her no, which shocked her as I had never said no to anything, and laid into her about leaving the workman unattended and where she was going all the time. She got very defensive and again said lunch. I would have fired her on the spot, but I didn’t have the cash to pay her and Matt had the ATM card. But I resolved to do so as soon as possible.

Rule #5 – Be Prepared for the Termination Meeting. This was the one rule I didn’t break. Once I knew I was firing Olga, the attorney in me sprung into action and I got everything lined up. I was paying Olga severance and had been told to have her sign a document saying we had paid her all of her wages in addition to the severance, so I had one of Matt’s teachers write the document for me. Sarah agreed that we could hire Esther to watch our house while we were all on vacation and talked to Esther who was willing to do so. On the way home Matt and I stopped for cash and I told him that if Olga was there I was firing her that night.

She was and Matt made an immediate beeline upstairs, where he would spend the next 1 1/2 hours while I did the deed. I sat Olga down and told her that it was her last day. She was shocked and asked why and I told her that we didn’t communicate well, that her performance had been slipping and that she didn’t seem interested in working lately. She started silently crying and I felt absolutely awful but stuck to my guns despite her pleas that she would improve. And then she played her trump card and said “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” or at least that is what I understood, with a very expectant look on her face. I responded that I didn’t understand and then she said the words every employer dreads to here “Estoy embarazada” – I’m pregnant. Crap. I understood that one and asked her why she hadn’t told me. She gave a vague excuse and then added that she wasn’t working hard because she was in danger of miscarriage and that she was also going to doctor appointments when she left my house. Double crap. My mind was racing – in the US I could still fire her as I made the decision before I knew she was pregnant but I don’t know squat about Peruvian employment law. I then said the stupidest thing ever, something like “well maybe it will be better if you aren’t doing this kind of work then.” Thankfully, I doubt she understood me. I stuck with the plan and fired her anyhow. She asked if she could return the next day to get her things and I said no as I knew she would show up with an ultrasound or something and then I would feel like an even bigger jerk. So she got her things together and then we awkwardly waited 30 minutes for the cab I was sending her home in to arrive. UGH.

I lived in fear for the following week that someone would show up at my door and beat me up or worse, tell me that Olga had a miscarriage, but it has been over a month now and these things have not occurred (knock on wood). Even better, Maria began working for us a few weeks ago and is amazing. She works only 4 days a week and much shorter hours than Olga and does everything I ask her – including shopping and some cooking – and is excited to share her Peruvian recipes with me. We chat every day and sometimes even eat a meal together. It is wonderful not to feel uncomfortable in my own home and to be able to enjoy this big perk of my new life.


7 thoughts on “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

  1. Oh my, Ker! What an ordeal. I’m impressed that you stuck to your plan and delighted that you are happy with Maria…but how could you not be happy with a Maria?! 😉

  2. In the U.S. we would refer to your problem as “first world”, but that’s not quite fitting is it? 😉 I’m glad you worked it all out, what a pain to feel uncomfortable in your own house!

    • Right! I’m not expecting too much sympathy and certainly recognize that Olga’s lot in life is much more difficult than mine, but it was a learning experience nonetheless.

  3. Wow, that was a difficult one! It sounds like there were not only cultural differences but certainly personality differences too!! Glad Maria is working out much better!

  4. OMG!! Kerry I am glad you stuck to your guns when she played the sympathy card!! She did not sound good from the get go! Good for you!!! Hooray for finally having someone you can trust and feel comfortable with!

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