Interview with Melanie Leung-Shea, founder of Helpwise, Hong Kong’s first domestic help consulting service for employers.
With a desire to share healthy, professional, and non-judgmental advice on helper-related topics, Melanie launched Helpwise, becoming the first domestic help consulting service in Hong Kong devoted to helping employers navigate this special working and living arrangement.
Tell us about Helpwise and what inspired you to start this company.
I’ve been fascinated with the helper/employer dynamic ever since being introduced to Hong Kong nearly ten years ago. I used to teach English classes and lead social events for domestic helpers, and once word got out that I was doing these things, I started getting calls and emails from employers of helpers saying, “Someone told me that you work with helpers. Can I get your advice on something?…” And then they would proceed to ask my advice about a communication problem they were facing with their helper, or they’d tell me about a serious situation they were dealing with and ask my opinion about whether to terminate their helper or not.
This kept happening, and I realized that, although there were many good charities and NGO’s available for helpers to seek answers, there actually weren’t that many resources devoted to helping employers find healthy answers and receive practical advice. So, my Hong Kong-born husband and I started Helpwise, and I began teaching workshops and creating tools that help employers professionalize the relationship that they have with their helpers.
What’s your personal background?
I’ve always had “people jobs.” I find the challenge of managing and growing people to their full potential very satisfying. Growing up in the States, my grandfather and father were both business owners, so I had the opportunity to observe people management from a young age. I used to work for my dad’s company, then became a manager at a portrait studio, and later went on to launch my own event and wedding planning business.
Moving to Hong Kong, I realized that a lot of employer-helper relationships could be improved by applying healthy workplace management skills in the home. So now I’m trying to help employers make sense of this uniquely complex living and working arrangement, by teaching them tools and systems that can help them achieve sustainable, “win-win results” with their helpers.
Tell us about your workshops.
It’s been exciting to have employers from all backgrounds, ages, and helper experience levels attending our workshops – from young pregnant couples hiring their first helper, to locals in their 60’s who have been managing helpers for years. With my husband’s experience of growing up with helpers, and my contrasting experience of working through this new concept as an adult, we understand how different employers may struggle with different aspects of this. We try very hard to make sure that a variety of perspectives are represented and respected in what we say and teach.
Our workshops offer personal and practical advice on all sorts of helper-related topics such as: training and communicating, setting expectations and boundaries, parenting with a helper, and how to handle conflicts and challenges. We tell our attendees and clients that no question is too silly or too shameful to ask, and we tackle all sorts of real-life scenarios. I often notice students swapping stories or phone numbers after class. I think it’s a relief for people to find others who can relate to their questions or situations.
What should employees know about helper’s references?
In short, they are hard to come by and may not be very reliable. I understand and respect that people who are hiring a helper want to do what’s best for their household, and some people feel that having a reference from a helper’s previous employer brings them a sense of security.
However, I also encourage clients not to place too much weight on references. There are many reasons for this. In fact, I’ve written an article called 5 Things to Know About Helper References for those who are curious to learn more about this interesting aspect of hiring helpers.
Can you offer some stats on domestic helper employment in HK, for those who may be unfamiliar with the basics?
There are currently over 330,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong. The majority of them are from either the Philippines, whose culture is more similar to Western societies with many of them able to speak English; or, they may be from Indonesia whose culture is more similar to Asian culture, with many Indonesians speaking Cantonese. Hong Kong law says that helpers must reside in the home of their employer and have their food and medical covered by their employer. All domestic helper contracts are for 2 years at a time, but can be renewed beyond that, or terminated before that.
Can you offer some advice for a successful employer-helper relationship?
- View your helper as an employee, your home as a company, and yourself as the manager. This can help you find a balance of treating your helper with human dignity, while also creating healthy boundaries to help bring clarity to your working relationship.
- Allow adequate time for training and onboarding. Helpers need time to adjust to your new way of doing things, even if they come with many years of experience. Don’t be surprised if trust and familiarity don’t come right away. Some employers/helpers need more than just a few weeks to get used to each other’s personalities and patterns.
- Never stop training, managing, and communicating. As long as you have an employee working for you, you’ll still need to bring guidance and clarity in order to keep the working relationship running smoothly.
Melanie teaches workshops, does private consultations, and speaks at schools, churches, hospitals, and private venues, giving specific advice on motivating, managing, and professionalizing the employer/helper relationship.
Upcoming Workshops and Employer Resources at: www.helpwise.com.hk
Pictures and Management Tips at: www.facebook.com/helpwisehk