At Your Disservice

These student butlers got served.

And then, he reassured them, "The job placement opportunities are real."


The promise of that placement kept Muller and his colleagues struggling through the eight-week course. If no other part of the program lived up to expectations, they told themselves that at least they'd get a job. That helped them tolerate the last eccentric elements of the curriculum, like the stuffy formal "Ballets of Service" they conducted for Starkey International guests, and their final project: a massive book each created, filled with magazine clippings and other miscellanea, detailing their perfect, though imaginary, household management job.

Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.
Mary Starkey helped set the standards for household management, which she teaches at her Capitol Hill mansion.

Details

Listen

and

to hear excerpts of the February 7 school meeting in which Mary Louise Starkey explained some of the finer point of the service industry and shed some light on the alleged incident between her and student Lisa Kirkpatrick that day.

"What we were getting was a lot of hot air," says Muller. "But in the end, who cares? If there is a rubber stamp that opens up this world of the rich, if the rest of the world is fooled and the billionaires are fooled, then let's get the pin and move on. If the job placement was real, that's all we cared about."

And all those glowing stories in the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes, on CNN and the BBC, in Richistan, the new book by Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank, made the placement possibilities seem very real. "I think the industry is two million deep," Starkey had said to one reporter. "If my little company always has 45 to fifty clients waiting and I only educate a hundred students a year, it's the tip of the iceberg." She told another the industry was so hot that, if she had the means, she could immediately place "hundreds of thousands" of household managers. And those placements came with good price tags. School materials have suggested that salary packages for Starkey-certified household managers range from $40,000 to $150,000, and that a graduate lucky enough to score an "estate manager" position, overseeing the operations of a wealthy family's multiple residences, could command between $80,000 and $250,000.

Muller, especially, seemed destined for success. Because of his corporate background, Starkey told him that he was perfect for a wealthy West Coast couple looking for a household manager, and he flew to California to meet them. During the job interview, Muller mentioned some of the drama transpiring at the Starkey Mansion. The couple told him they weren't surprised, he says: This was the third time they'd attempted to find a household manager through Starkey International; the first two placements had been utterly inept. "They'd had a terrible experience with Starkey," says Muller.

Other dissatisfied clients have taken Starkey to court, suing the school for allegedly placing incompetent workers in their homes and then refusing to fully refund the placement fee, which is usually 25 to 35 percent of the graduate's first-year salary. In 1995, Starkey's placement company took Washington, D.C. lobbying firm Liz Robbins Associates to court after a housekeeper placement didn't work out and the firm demanded a refund. Four years later, Wade Kirby sued Starkey for refusing to fully repay the placement fee for a poorly performing nanny he said he fired within the school's sixty-day "Placement Guarantee." In 2000, Mark Betts sued Starkey International over another unacceptable nanny. In the lawsuit, Betts alleged that while his family told the school he needed a nanny who could chauffeur his children, the school neglected to mention that the nanny they found for him had a drunk-driving conviction. All three suits were eventually settled out of court without admission of wrongdoing. "We thought we were going to be able to solve our nanny-search problem by going to the 'Cadillac' agency and paying the top rate in the industry for the best available nanny," says a former Starkey client. "But their background check was so sloppy that we had the worst situation we ever had in finding a nanny. And moreover, they were incredibly haughty in the process. They were obnoxious at times to deal with."

"I didn't really enjoy saying we matched people correctly when in reality we didn't," says a former Starkey placement specialist. "We told students we matched up people with their personalities. I kind of think we were throwing spaghetti against the wall. Whatever sticks."

Between 2000 and 2007, says Starkey International graduate Thomas Miller, Starkey placed him in three inappropriate households. "Her site reports on these homes were nothing but fluff and fantasy. It was not the real world," he remembers. "We as service providers sometimes go into a position blindfolded because Starkey or the other placement agencies don't do their homework."

Several potentially lucrative deals were jeopardized by the First Lady of Service's inappropriate behavior, staffers say. Allan Miller claims a military officer being taken aback when, during a discussion on a possible training program, Starkey told him he "had the bluest eyes." Champion says he was informed by a senior military aide that Starkey was not allowed to set foot on a certain Army base after she repeatedly referred to a high-ranking officer with whom she was meeting by his first name.

Graduates accuse Starkey of creating such tension at their job opportunities that it's often impossible to succeed. "You're stuck. You've gone to school, you need the money, and you can't just tell her to shut up because you need a job," says Anne Ginger, who graduated along with her husband, John Perkins, from Starkey International in 2006. The school placed Ginger and Perkins in a California home, but Ginger says Starkey called there so incessantly, demanding progress reports from the employers and yelling at her graduates, that the couple quit after two months. On their own, they found jobs at a Florida estate, but Ginger says that Starkey International's chief operating officer at the time told her the school would pursue legal action against her, her husband and the estate's property manager if it did not receive a placement fee for the job — even though the employer never signed a placement contract with the school.

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