Sara Vestin Rahmani is the owner of Bespoke Bureau, a yacht crew and domestic staff recruitment agency that also trains people looking to cut it in five-star establishments.
Polishing chandeliers. Driving sports cars. Serving seafood to billionaires in the salty sea breeze. These tasks aren’t in your average job description.
But they’re part of daily existence for the domestic staff and ultrayacht crew members that Vestin Rahmani recruits for wealthy clients. These staff come from diverse backgrounds and different countries, with different routes to this luxury market.
What they’ve got in common, however, is the ability to build relationships.
“When it comes to domestic staff, personal chemistry is far and above the most important factor, particularly for butlers, who are often the confidante to the principal. Many times – on paper – every single candidate can do the job extremely well. But if there is no chemistry it will not work.”
Appearance and demeanour are also crucial.
“People must be non-offensive, not in your face, available at all times, well-presented. Smell is often important – you don’t want a chain-smoking butler in a fitness-conscious family. Staff also need to be hard-working, fit and hands-on. Everyone must work well in a team.”
This, of course, is to do with people dynamics. Domestic staff are brought into the family, into a very trusted position, and it takes skill to melt into the established environment in a way that is professional and personable.
On ultrayachts, the dynamic is slightly different.
Four model domestic staff CVs:
All identifying information has been redacted.
“Personal chemistry is less important in the ultrayachting industry – most yachts are owned privately and get chartered out. Even if the owner is on board they probably won’t be for more than three weeks at a time. You simply don’t have the time to find people that irritating.”
Because of this, what’s on paper is often more important when it comes to selecting staff to work on yachts. Adaptability and resilience are two very important characteristics. Politics at sea is hard and biting. You’re living in a confined space and you can’t ‘get away for the day.’ Staff need the ability to remain unaffected by acute stressors. Generation Y often have a harder time of this.
“The yacht industry is interesting because it’s one of the only jobs where you’re signed to do stints. For domestic staff, clients are looking for CVs with long periods of continuous employment as a sign of reliability. On yachting you want people who are good enough to be contracted out to various clients.”
The domestic staff industry carries with it certain historical connotations – the elderly esteemed gent, polishing silverware, driving a Rolls-Royce. Downton Abbey has brought it all back into vogue.
“In some cases the stereotype is true – we do have these types of people on our books.”
But they’re slowing dying out. So what about the new generation of people coming into the industry – the Gen Yers?
“We have a large number of Generation Y. They are doing well in the industry because people are increasingly looking for multitaskers in domestic situations – whereas before the butler would look after dinner service and perhaps alcohol, now the butler will also drive and cook meals.
Is this is a money thing?
“Yes. Prices have gone up for domestic staff so you need multitaskers. In the days of Downton Abbey, people [domestic staff] were just happy to have a roof over their heads. Some families think we still live in those days and want people who will work solely for food and lodgings, but this isn’t something we promote. In any case, for many families a full set of staff would be too expensive nowadays.”
“Historically, high-end employers did not want junior staff – but when we say they can get three staff for the price of one, they start to listen.”
Who are the most sought after workers in the industry?
“Interestingly, we find that everyone wants to employ domestic couples. And they are the hardest to find too. They’re great because they can do segregated roles, they can work together, they stay there together, they collaborate naturally, politics are kept to a minimum, and they’ve got established personal chemistry. Everyone wins. But they are one of the hardest roles to fill, because people want at least seven years’ plus experience.”
Sometimes, of course, workers don’t work out, as happens in all industries.
“We work on trial periods of about one to two weeks, as it always takes time to see if someone will work out in the long term – after the trial period we have a very high success rate of around 90% to 95%.”
Success is driven through understanding the client’s needs and wishes. This is also key because reputation drives everything. Bespoke Bureau never make cold calls or advertise – all business comes via word of mouth.
“We talk or meet with clients at length. Normally what happens is they give us a ring, or send us an email, and we speak to the principal or the principal’s PA. We ask for, and tend to receive, very specific job specifications. The better the job descriptions the better the service we can provide. We need people to be open and honest.
“Then we extract as much pertinent information from the principal as possible. Why did the last person leave the role? What salary are you prepared to pay? What are your expectations of a butler? What’s worked for you in the past and what hasn’t worked for you in the past? Is the worker’s nationality or background important?”
After this, Sara taps into her database of workers – around 8000 people – to find people appropriate for the client. It’s all very data-driven.
The next stage of the recruitment process seems informal, which Vestin Rahmani says is due to the bespoke nature of appointments.
“We have a sheet of standard questions – a psychological-based sheet with around 80 questions – but we tend to tell our staff to avoid using this. We’re well trained in telling who’s good and who’s not through personal interaction.
I ask Vestin Rahmani whether their ability to tell who’s good or not through personal interaction is a luxury they have because the number of people who apply for jobs is far below the ‘mainstream’ number, where such a personal and attentive sift is not possible.
“A big sift would go against what we believe in and make our job of finding the right worker very difficult. You can’t go by gut feeling when you’ve got 1000 CVs to go through. We also use second opinions – human interaction is key to success in this industry so it’s useful to see how people interact with multiple others.”
In terms of clients, they are very diverse. The more established wealthy families are very driven by social status. Why is this relevant? Because a high turnover of domestic staff is seen as highly undesirable and something that clients are very keen to avoid. That’s why it’s imperative Sara recruits the right people.
“It’s embarrassing if your housekeeper leaves you and affects your social reputation. That’s why we spend so much ensuring a good fit – if domestic staff leave, it looks bad for the family, and that affects our own reputation.”
Social status can also be a problem among the staff themselves – particularly among the old guard.
“More elderly male domestic workers often struggle to work for clients who are younger or more successful or – unfortunately – female.”
While this preoccupation with social status is widespread, the growing bulk of wealthy Generation Yers are approaching domestic staff with a different attitude. They’re less concerned with social respect and status.
“They’re a bit more laid back, more on a par with the workers. It can also be nicer to work for them. We had one young client who was very uncomfortable with his staff calling him Sir and wanted them to call him by his name.”
“But we do try to tell them not to be too friendly or the staff can take advantage.”
This seems to reflect the leadership trends we increasingly see in the workplace. Traditional authority structures are becoming less popular and companies like Valve Software are promoting – and succeeding – with flat, boss-free environments.
Before we wrap up the interview, I ask about perceptions of the industry – high net worth individuals often get a bad rap for splurging. Is it fair to spend thousands and thousands on domestic staff? Sara gives us a different perspective.
“If you have millions of pounds, what would you want to do with that? Protect and look after your property and life and family seems like a good bet.
“And that’s why people hire domestic staff.”
Whatever your views, the industry is definitely here to stay.
“This is a luxury recruitment market and totally recession-proof,” says Sara. “The rich continue to get richer and hire more staff.”
About Jamie Lawrence
Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.