Witness to Nanny Abuse: Responding to a Bully

What Would You Do if You Saw a Mom, or Her Child, Berating the Family Nanny?

ABC Show Tonight



Have you ever worked for an unfair boss, or witnessed someone talking to their employee in a way that made you uncomfortable, angry or scared?

You are not alone. A survey taken by Domestic Workers United found that almost half of working Americans have suffered or witnessed workplace bullying.

Watch the story on ABC’s “What Would You Do?” on Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 10 p.m. ET.

ABC’s “What Would You Do?” decided to find out how people would react when they saw a nanny mistreated by an abusive employer.

What Would You Do?” set up hidden cameras at a popular neighborhood coffee shop, Ozzie’s Coffee, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In the midst of the latte rush hour, a nanny walked in with a little girl to meet up with the girl’s mother.

There was nothing out of the ordinary here, except that the three actors had been hired by ABC as part of a social experiment about abuse of power. After a friendly greeting it became clear that mom wasn’t happy with the help.

Our actor playing the tyrant mother noticed a stain on the little girls’ shirt. The nanny tells her it was an accident. But the actor portraying the girl’s mother wasn’t buying it.

“I don’t pay you to have her look like this, do I, do I? You know what, I don’t want to hear any more excuses from you, you’re useless, and a moron. I’m so mad right now I can freaking hit you,” she said.

All of this was within earshot of a room full of unsuspecting regulars.

50 Cents an Hour

What makes this scenario particularly disturbing is that we spoke with nannies around the country who said that this type of treatment is not uncommon and in fact somewhat routine for nannies at the lower end of the pay scale.

Erline Browne has worked as a nanny for more than 15 years and served as a consultant during our shoot. She argued that there is wholesale disrespect for the profession.

“It’s looked at, that you’re doing this because you can’t do anything else. If you could do real work, then you’d be out there doing real work. You’re doing this because you’re uneducated, you’re useless,” she told ABC.

Browne has interviewed hundreds of working nannies as a member of Domestic Workers United, a group in New York State that works to establish fair labor standards for domestic workers.

“There was one lady who I represented and she was pushed down some steps, she was also thrown out of a moving car into a pile of snow. There was another nanny that was working 70 hours, getting 50 cents an hour and sleeping on the floor on a thin mat,” she said.

Joe Magee, an assistant professor at the Wagner School at New York University, researches power dynamics.

“People who have a lot of power, I think we tend to think aren’t that nice, and I think that there is some truth to that,” he said.

“Because most of what we find in our research on power suggests that you get a little bit more selfish, you get a little bit more focused on your own goals. You’re less apt to think about other people’s needs and values.”

‘I Could Just Slap You’

Inside Ozzie’s Coffee we continued our experiment and “mom” began ordering the “nanny” around. “I need you to get me water, NOW.”

“Just a bottle of water?” the nanny asked.

“Well I don’t want it in my hand, do I?” the mother snapped back. During this exchange a man sitting right next to our actors was well into the New York Times and ignored our actors, so we decided to step it up notch.

Mom begins to berate the nanny about a long list of tasks, most of them not related to child care, another common complaint of working nannies. She adds insult to injury and tells the nanny that she will not pay her for the week. The man at the next table casts a few furtive glances over at our actors but mostly buries his head further and further into newspaper.

Finally mom lost her temper completely.

“I pay you to do what I ask you to do. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?!” she exclaimed, and then grabbed the nanny by the arm. At this point the man at the next table simply turned his head away. He had been listening to the abuse for 15 minutes and never once intervened, even after the mother became physical. The actors refused to give up even though the scenario was taking a toll on them. Mom began to scold the nanny because she forgot to bring a package to the coffee shop.

The dressing down took on an ominous tone. “I could just slap you across the face, because I’m so pissed off at you right now. You’re useless and you’re worthless,” she yelled out. A woman from across the room had finally had enough, “Whoa whoa whoa, don’t call her worthless,” she yelled back.

“It’s none of your business,” our actor said, egging her on.

The bystander walks over to the mother, “Then don’t do it in a public place. You treat your employee like this? You’re repulsive,” she says and walks away.

We caught up with the woman outside and she was still reeling from the experience.

“I felt like she was getting abused, definitely,” she said. “And then I felt like it was inappropriate to do that in front of other people. She’s lucky that I didn’t throw the coffee all over her computer and her and her little daughter.”

Confronting a Bully

For the two days we shot in Ozzie’s Coffee, more than 250 people witnessed our scenario and we saw some incredible acts of generosity. One woman offered the actor playing our nanny her phone number so she could help her find another job. Another woman moved to action gave the nanny $40 to get home after she overheard the mother threatening not to pay her. But we were surprised at how few people actually got involved. Most would only respond after they were provoked or when the abusive employer left the scene.

Magee was not at all surprised that so few people directly intervened. “I think approaching the abuser is very difficult because one of the things going through people’s minds is, what’s the risk for me here if I confront this individual? And with an abuser, who is acting in a nasty way, we get concerned that we might be under threat if we confront that person.”

A Young Tyrant

We decided to take our experiment one step further and decided to see what would happen if the one doling out the abuse was a child. Our actors walk into Ozzie’s Coffee, one a nanny, the other a little girl under her care. The nanny told the little girl to get off the phone, “I need to talk to you, you need to hang up now,” she says. “My stupid nanny wants to talk to me, my stupid nanny,” the little girl tells her friend on the phone and reluctantly hangs up.

So far no one intervened, so our young tyrant gave it another shot and began berating the nanny.

“My mom pays you to be a good nanny. If you weren’t so worthless &” the little girl continued to berate her caretaker.

Not long into this tirade a man walks up to the actors’ table, “Why are you treating this woman like this, she’s taking a lot of abuse from you,” he said.

“Well sir, I don’t think this is any of your business,” our actress replied firmly.

“Do you own her?” he asked.

“Yeah, my parents pay her,” the little girl replied nonchalantly.

“You’re lucky you’re not my daughter, because I’d take care of you,” the bystander countered and then he walked out of the coffee shop.

Browne says that in her line of work it is becoming increasingly common for kids to act out, mimicking their parent’s behavior. Her organization, Domestic Workers United, is lobbying the New York legislature to combat the abuse and advocate for benefits.

“Sick days with pay, health insurance, which is very important, personal days … There are a lot of nannies, when they ask for time off to go and have a mammogram, they’re fired,” she said.

Magee offered advice to all employees who find themselves working in an abusive environment: “I think in any employment relationship the first thing you want to do is, have a conversation. If that doesn’t work, next thing I would do is to document the incidents that happen because at least that gives you some legal recourse. And the third thing is to use your base of power, which is the labor market. You can always walk away from that job as long as you can find another one.”

Copyright © 2009 ABC News Internet Ventures

Will you watch tonight? What do you think of the concept?


  1. I will definitely watch abd tell my nanny and au pair friends too.

  2. Love the idea, love the concept, I will record it.

  3. I missed the show, but heard about it this morning from Lora Brawley, who consulted with the producer to develop this episode. I went to the network site and read the article and all the comments. Then I carefully crafted a response, clicked to post it, and Safari said there’s no such site as the sign-in-to-post site, and I can’t get back to my comment…safari history keeps bouncing me to that no-such-site screen! All that work! AARGH!In a nutshell, I think the show would be worthwhile if it always ended by having social psychologists comment on safe and often-effective ways to respond to the situation shown. And give resources for further reading and training (websites, books, workshops, etc.) In the nanny-parent-child situation described, showing disapproval would inflame the angry person and could get the intervening bystander attacked and/or make it worse for the victim later (“Because of you, that person got in my face, and I was humiliated in public!”) Yet that seemed to be the response the show aimed for bystanders to have. Most of the positive responding posts even spoke of confronting the abusers head-on. (The situation with the teen is different…she was calm enough that she could have benefitted from a calm and direct intervention. But angry put-downs about her behavior would only have entrenched her more.)The wisest people mentioned in the article counseled and supported the nanny after the parent had left. But for people who wanted to intervene, they could have been helped by a little demonstration at the end of the show of distracting the angry person, or focussing her on something else…maybe on her beautiful and precious little girl and the child’s needs of the moment.So I wish the producers would turn the show into something helpful…once they’ve made viewers realize we lack skills in certain situations, give us the resources to become competent if we choose to do so!And thanks to Lora, for highlighting the widespread abuse of nannies!Personally, I cannot tolerate being demeaned. My antennae are so sensitive in this area, I have never accepted a job in which the employers are any less than unerringly diplomatic and respectful. I make it clear before hire that this sensitivity exists, and that the flip side is that I can never be physically or verbally abusive to a child no matter how hard I am pushed. If I did find myself in such a position, however, I would give notice at the first verbal slap, and even my serving the notice time would be contingent on full pre-payment and on respectful behavior throughout my final days. One more put-down, and I’m gone without further ado.

  4. Abuse happens because domestic work is highly unregulated. Human resource departments cannot even eliminate all abuse against employees so it is nearly impossible to regulate it in a private home.Illegal aliens often feel they have no legal recourse, which is not true. BUT mistreatment of domestic employees is more likely than of legal citizens so that is another reason to pay taxes…

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