Katie Small on the staffing habits of London’s wealthiest – and how to manage Jeeves
It’s all drama in the third series of Downton Abbey, when the Earl of Grantham, facing financial ruin and the loss of the estate (don’t worry – this article doesn’t contain any plot spoilers), places a hiring freeze on the staff downstairs. Mr Carson the butler is faced with the prospect of being unable to hire a second footman, meaning the family will continue to be waited upon by maids at dinner.
While you take in the extreme gravity of this situation, you can be rest assured that the lack of a second footman is unlikely to send a modern household into a tailspin. The cast of thousands for which Carson was pining is no longer necessary; the twenty-first century wealthy rely on fewer staff, but ones with a wider range of skills.
Last year a Sunday Times article profiled the modern butler (or valet, to be more precise). Earning six figure salaries and jetting round the world as necessary, they are now clad in chinos rather than a morning coat and fulfil a role that includes personal assistant duties as well as domestic support.
Other roles that are more specialised have evolved. A lady’s maid has been replaced with a stylist and a hair dresser, both of whom would have a number of other clients. Central heating, hoovers, washing machines and dish washers mean that fewer people take less time to ensure a house is clean and its inhabitants are fed, warm and well-dressed. An erstwhile army of maids has been replaced by a couple of cleaners, many of whom will be part time with other clients.
A London household is now considered well-staffed with less than five people, not all of whom are full time. If a household has children, then a full-time nanny is important. A butler/ housekeeper figure will run the household, though as noted above their duties are often defined by the needs of their employer. Cleaners, gardeners and chauffeurs are often part-time. With the range of restaurants on offer, a full-time cook is now very rare. Often caterers will be hired in for dinner parties and other special occasions, and if you charter a super-yacht the owner will usually provide a chef with a couple of Michelin stars as standard.
In country houses with big estates, there is a similar picture of more diversified roles but, naturally, these houses still need a larger staff to keep them in good running order. A lot of these big estates now host visitors, exhibitions and weddings as well as activities like paintballing and glamping, and so need a specialist workforce to run those services.
Of course the other difference between today and 1920s Downton is that more is expected of you as an employer. Employer’s Liability (EL) insurance is compulsory for all but a few employers (details can be found here), and offers coverage if an employee becomes injured or ill while working for you and claims compensation. A proper EL policy also provides cover for legal expenses and costs in defending yourself, which can run to tens of thousands of pounds. Most people realise the need for this when they employ people in their own business, but, as with many areas of life, where home and business life collide it can be a little more confusing.
A high net worth household policy usually includes elements of employer’s liability for domestic staff, but despite their job titles, when you look at the tasks these people perform they can fall outside that. The work that the butler/PA we spoke about above does wouldn’t be classed as purely domestic if they helped their employer with any business, non-household arrangements. If staff members are paid through a service company they could also be outside a household policy. Generally if someone works exclusively for you, there could be a need for more specific coverage than that provided as standard on a household policy. The staff on a diversified country estate would certainly qualify as a workforce rather than domestics, and would generally fall outside of the scope of cover offered under a household policy. Remember also that some household policies do not provide cover for illness and therefore do not comply with employers’ legal requirements at all.
There are more grey areas than clearly defined ones, so telling a broker not just their job titles but also what each staff member does each day is vital for ensuring you have the correct protection. After all, if you’re paying Jeeves to look after you, then you should also pay for insurance that looks after him.
Katie Small, is a board director and head of Private Wealth for R K Harrison Insurance Services
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