The perils of recruitment

In the second part of her series on social care, Victoria Brignell describes the challenge of recrui

Harold Macmillan was once asked by a reporter what he feared most. He famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events ". As a disabled person who employs carers (also known these days as personal assistants), I know exactly how he feels. At any time, my life could be turned upside down by a PA telling me that she wants to resign from her job. Recruiting, training and becoming used to a new PA are perhaps the greatest hurdles I face as a tetraplegic person. This is the issue which causes me the most worry and has the biggest impact on my day-to-day life.

I'm lucky in that two of my part-time PAs have been with me for 10 years and seven years respectively. But sadly most of my good PAs tend to leave after two or three years. I can't offer them promotion or give them a substantial pay rise so if they feel they need a new challenge or want to earn more money, then unfortunately the only option open to them is to find a new job. I do my best not to get on my PAs' nerves but as the very nature of the job means PAs have to work closely with me it would be understandable if they find me irritating after a while. The live-in care job involves long hours and eventually some PAs decide they want a better worklife balance.

When a good PA leaves her job, it is like suffering a bereavement. One week you have a person's company for a large part of the time, the next week they are gone. During the time she is working with me, a PA will often share stories with me about her family and friends, but once she has left I no longer hear about these people's lives and they are lost to me as well. I do manage to keep in touch with a number of PAs after they have stopped working with me, but it's physically impossible to maintain contact with all of them.

The first time I recruited a PA was an important moment in my life. I had to prepare a job description, draw up a contract and write a job advert. This meant gathering examples of 'good practice' from other PA employers and obtaining advice from employment experts. Many areas of the country now have independent living advice centres run by disabled people and these provide an invaluable service to people like myself who employ PAs.

In the past I've recruited PAs by advertising in the job centre and in local newspapers. The service offered by job centres is free but in recent years it has become increasingly expensive to use newspapers. When I was looking for a new live-in PA last year, the smallest possible advert in a series of local newspapers across London cost me £300. I was therefore pleased to discover the Gumtree website which is now used by many disabled people to recruit PAs. You can publish an advert on this website for about £30. There's also a website called PA Pool that was set up specifically to make it easier for disabled people to find PAs.

There have been occasions when I've wanted to give a permanent job to an agency carer I've met when she has been covering another PA's holiday or sick leave. However, it's impossible to do this for financial reasons. Most agencies charge an enormous one-off fee if you try to directly employ a carer who has been "introduced" to you by them. A fee of 17% of the PA's yearly salary is not uncommon. This is way outside my budget.

I try to operate an equal opportunities recruitment policy as much as possible. My current team of PAs range in age from 23 to 57. Three of them are from an ethnic minority background. But I openly admit that I have a policy of not employing men. This is because my PAs have to help me with personal care. In case you're wondering, I'm not breaking the law by doing this. There is a section of the Sex Discrimination Act which allows employers like myself to discriminate against men when the job in question involves personal care.

If an applicant's CV looks promising, I put the person on my shortlist and invite them for interview. I always carry out interviews at my workplace, even interviews for home PAs. Disabled people are advised not to interview prospective carers at home to protect their own safety. After all, it's not sensible to invite complete strangers into your home. Usually I schedule about 16 interviews over four evenings.

I want to warn you that I'm now about to embark on a rant. A bizarre aspect of the recruitment process is that normally about a third of the people I offer interviews to simply don't bother turning up. I don't object to people having second thoughts. They have every right to change their mind. What I do find frustrating is that most of the time these people don't have the courtesy to ring to let me know they are not coming. As a result, I end up hanging around at work in the evening for no reason.

Over the years, I've had some surreal experiences when interviewing people. There was one occasion when a young woman turned up for interview accompanied by her mother and three siblings. All of them carried Bibles. Her mother insisted on coming into the interview room as well - she clearly feared that if her daughter was left on her own with me I might lead her astray. At the end of the interview the young woman asked me if I would like her to pray with me. I was so taken aback I was speechless for a moment. Once I had regained the use of my vocal chords, I politely declined the offer.

Recruiting a new PA is always a nerve racking experience. Although I interview shortlisted applicants for up to an hour, it's not until a person is actually doing the job that you find out what they are really like. Over the years I've learnt from my mistakes. At university I appointed a sixth former as a notetaker and only discovered once she had started the job that I couldn't read her handwriting! I didn't feel I could ask the person to leave so I gave the person other tasks to do instead. Luckily, I only employed this person for two hours a week so it didn't hinder my work too much. Since then I've given all applicants a handwriting assessment.

On another occasion I appointed a carer who turned out to have a phobia of lifts. Why she applied for a job working with a wheelchair user who has no choice but to use lifts I will never know. These days I make a point of asking applicants if they have any phobias.

Whenever I recruit a new carer there is a training period when they work alongside the PA they are due to replace. In the case of my live-in PA, the training period lasts for five days. My flat only has one bedroom for a PA so during that week one of the PAs has to sleep on a mattress on the living room floor. It's not ideal but luckily it's only for four nights.

After a new PA joins me, it can take me a while to adjust to her way of doing tasks. Although each new PA is trained to develop the same techniques, there are certain tasks which every person does in a distinct way. For example, every person feeds me slightly differently, turns me in bed slightly differently and wipes my nose slightly differently. If I concentrate I can usually tell which of my PAs is pushing my wheelchair from the manner with which they handle it.

I ask all my PAs to sign a formal contract of employment which has the job description attached to it. The contract covers various issues such as how much holiday they are entitled to, what will happen if they need to take sick leave and what the probation period is. It also states that they must give six weeks notice when they want to resign. Six weeks might sound a long period but experience has taught me it can take this long to find a good PA. However, in reality there is little I can do to enforce the contract. There have been a number of occasions when PAs have left me without working out their notice.

I once had a PA who left suddenly because she was needed to look after her siblings. Another PA had to return abruptly to Africa when her mother was involved in a car accident. One PA was ill for the last two weeks of her notice period, which was rather suspicious as she had wanted to give me only four weeks notice in the first place. And sometimes tragic circumstances have unforeseen repercussions.

The July 7 bombings in 2005 occurred two days after a new live-in PA had begun working with me. She had never lived in London before and she found the events of that week so frightening that she decided that she couldn't carry on in the job. I tried to convince her that suicide bombings were very rare and that there was unlikely to be another tragedy but I failed to persuade her to change her mind. At the end of that week she went back to her home in Essex and refused to return to London on the Monday. And so I had to start the recruitment process all over again.

In this series on social care, Victoria gives her personal views on how the system works for her. These are not the views of the BBC.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.