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Mom Cop

Nanny Interview Tips From a Counterterrorism Expert

In an effort to take the anxiety out of hiring a new caregiver, a law-enforcement expert and mother of two shares how she gets a read on a potential caregiver.

Written By Lauren Wilkins
Illustration Rob Wilson

As a mother working in law enforcement, the first thought I had before going back to work after my daughter was born was: “How can I find a nanny I can really trust?” We’ve all seen the New York Post headlines, and although the vast majority of nannies are lovely people, as a mother, I understand the fear of leaving your child with someone you’ve just met. There are a lot of resources on how and where to find nannies, suggestions on what they should be paid and how to navigate the legalities of employing someone in your home. But learning how to judge a person’s character? How can you tell, with just one interview, if you should trust someone with your children?

While serving on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, I spent a lot of time talking to people, from victims and witnesses to criminals and informants. Sometimes people tell you the truth — whether they’re good guys or not — and sometimes they don’t. When I started interviewing nanny candidates, l was thankful to have had experience with both. While there is no magical vetting process for guaranteeing that a person is completely trustworthy, you do have a few tools at your disposal. Here are seven tips on how to get the most out of your next nanny interview.

1. Ask open-ended questions, and let the candidate answer them.

Interviewing is really about talking to people, and talking to people is really about listening. In the interview, ask questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. The goal is to get a general sense of this person, and lay a baseline of details and facts that you can come back to later. Ask easy, open-ended questions, such as, “What was a typical day like in your last job?” The candidate may be nervous, so try not to fill awkward silences as she thinks of her answer. Remember to listen. You can even jot down quick notes on the details she shares. If she sees you listening closely, this should encourage her to keep talking. It’s the details she gives you here that you can use in the next step.

2. Ask follow-up questions.

Once you have a baseline story about a normal day or a good experience, the next step is making sure the details add up. Follow up her answers with more questions about the particulars: Did she walk the kids to school or take a car? How close was the park? Can she describe it? How many kids were in the family and what ages were they? Most people will be able to answer these kinds of questions easily. If the person hesitates too long on details, changes them or gets defensive when you ask, it’s a possible indication that the story she’s telling might not be totally true. I once startled a candidate I was interviewing by simply asking her the names of the three kids she had been talking about. She couldn’t answer because the experience was totally made up. People have many reasons for making up stories, and they’re not always criminal reasons, but still, I would not hire anyone who started off our relationship by lying.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions.

Most of us are polite and don’t like putting other people on the spot, but you can learn a lot by asking slightly uncomfortable questions and seeing how someone answers them. For instance, ask why she left her previous position. Does she seem sad, angry or cagey about it? Can she provide reasonable details? It might be that the kids got older or the family moved. It might even be that she thinks the mom was unhinged. (I’ve heard that before.) Ask the question and see how she answers. Is she respectful in how she refers to her previous bosses? Does the story make sense? Her answers provide details that you can check with her references.

4. Get her thoughts on safety.

Ask the candidate what sort of rules she has for keeping everyone safe. Once you hire her, you can impart your own rules, too, but the point here is that dangerous situations can arise quickly and unexpectedly. Part of trusting someone with your children is being confident that she can keep them safe in all situations. You want to get a sense that she is aware of the dangers appropriate to your children’s different ages — whether they are choking hazards for toddlers or online hazards for adolescents — and that she has concrete, thoughtful steps to minimize them.

5. Unleash the kids.

During a police interview, it can be very effective to confront someone with something unexpected. What’s more unexpected than kids? Once you feel comfortable that a nanny candidate is a good fit for your family, unleash your children on her, sit back and observe what happens. Many people can talk about how wonderful they are with children, but (as all parents know) it is a different story when they are actually with the kids. The best way to verify this is to make her show you. See how the candidate talks to the kids. Is she comfortable? Are the kids comfortable? Does she laugh and enjoy herself? Do they? Don’t worry about your children’s behavior. If they are a bit beastly (as even the best children can be), consider it an opportunity to see how your future nanny reacts and whether she can appropriately manage the situation. Is she patient or annoyed? A big part of being trustworthy is the ability to control one’s emotions. No matter how much you like your nanny, the bulk of her job is interacting with your children. The best way to get a sense of whether she can do this is to watch her with them.

6. Call her references.

Always call references. This is non-negotiable. Just like in crime-fighting, checking references is your way of fact-checking the story, and it’s the only outside corroboration you can get on what the candidate told you. Take the same approach with the references as you did during the interview. Ask about specific experiences they had with the candidate. Ask for details and make sure they are consistent with the details the candidate gave you. How did the nanny get the kids around? What activities did she take them to? Make sure the nanny’s details match the details the employer is giving (especially the names and number of their children!). And of course, listen to the employer’s general opinion of the nanny — you can always learn from the warmth or coldness of the old boss’ tone and memories.

7. Google her.

Research the candidate’s online presence. This can give you an indication of who she is when she is not on her best behavior and trying to impress a new boss. If her Facebook and Instagram accounts are private, you can decide whether you are comfortable asking her to give you access. I encourage a thoughtful approach. You don’t have to approve of everything someone says or posts — whether that be a provocative bikini selfie or pictures of a wild night out — but someone you are going to trust as a nanny should communicate a general sense of thoughtfulness and respect. I prefer to do this step after I meet a candidate I like so that my first impression is unbiased by their outside-of-work persona, but you can also do it before the interview to help narrow down your candidates. You can also use publicly available services to have criminal and open-source background checks done.

Lauren Wilkins is a counterterrorism expert who has investigated threats to New York City by a horde of terrorist groups, from al Qaeda abroad to Islamic State supporters in Brooklyn. From 2008 to 2018, she was a terrorism analyst with the NYPD and served on assignment to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.