Care and Feeding

Suspect Behavior

I think our nanny is taking our food without asking first. Should I overlook this?

A hand pulling a lemon out of a bag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Evelyn Semenyuk on Unsplash and id-art/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve been fortunate to have a nanny for the past eight months to watch my now 1-year-old while I work from home. We pay her a generous hourly rate, plus paid vacation and holidays. My husband and I have been clear from the beginning that she is welcome to food in our fridge and pantry, and I ask her for requests before I go on grocery runs (it’s usually just an item here or there because she’s just not a big eater).

Last week, I traveled for business and left behind a carryout sandwich and sides for my husband to have for dinner. But it was gone the next day when he looked for it. Here’s the thing: I had it tied up in a bag with my own leftovers, and she removed the sandwich and threw away the container and sides in our outside trash can (which she never uses). This raised my eyebrows because she barely eats and never anything spicy—I’m fairly certain she brought it home to her husband. It’s also weird because she usually asks first.

So now we’re wondering if she’s helping herself to other things, and today in her bag I noticed a lemon, still cold from the fridge. Is it possible I wasn’t clear enough with our “help yourself” policy? Did I assume too much? The dishonesty is eating at me bad, and I feel taken advantage of; frankly, my feelings are hurt. She has stayed overnight in our home while we travel, and now I’m wondering what else has gone out the door with her. We’re not exactly rolling in dough (having my son at home is a stretch financially, but worth it), and she does speak of money problems, so do I just overlook this? She is otherwise timely, reliable, and good with our child. Good care is hard to find—and all I have to go on here is a spicy chicken sandwich and a lemon. What say you? I don’t want to be cheap, but I also don’t want to be a sucker.

—Just Want Some Honesty

Dear JWSH,

If all you’ve noticed losing over the course of eight months is a sandwich and a lemon, then I don’t think you’re exactly being robbed blind. There are all kinds of paranoid and stressful feelings people have when they hire domestic help, feelings that make it hard for people to see simple situations clearly, and what I’m getting from your letter here is that you’re suffering that. You are, as the kids say, doing too much.

You don’t need to spin this out into a macro story about how you’ve let a hungry thief into your home, and you definitely don’t need to be feeling around for cold lemons in her bag. You just need to ask this person if they ate the sandwich. That’s it. Then, if they did, you need to let them know that you were saving it for your husband and you’re sorry if there was a misunderstanding. Step away from the trash can forensics and theories about home life. You have not been harmed nor lied to. You told this person to help herself and now you’re worried because she … helped herself?

If you have rules about what she can and cannot take—and it sounds like you do—then you need to first sit down and clarify those rules for yourself, making sure they’re specific, reasonable, humane, and easy to understand and follow. Then you need to communicate those rules to her and do so without blaming her for not having mind-read them all in the first place.  I’m not discounting the fact that she may have somehow breached trust or tried to get away with something here, but by being unclear about what your rules are, you’ve created a situation where you can’t rightfully, easily, or fairly address it. So, if she was being sneaky, she gets a pass on a technicality here. Clarify your standards, do not blame her for not knowing them, and then you’ll know soon enough if you really have a problem.