LNG: Thank you for your time and agreeing to do an imaginary but honest and transparent interview, this has been a long time in the making and I am grateful you finally agree to give us an unprecedented look into your business, especially staff treatment, and what makes you stand out on the high street.
PAM: Oh, no problem at all. Sorry it took so long to agree to an imaginary yet open and honest interview, but we’ve been really busy with our success as you know.
LNG: Yes, well done! May I call you Pret?
PAM: Sure, we love to be on first name basis here. We are family.
LNG: Thank you, you can call me what your CEO calls me.
PAM: Great! Okay Late Night Girl, what do you want to know about our company?
LNG: My first question….
PAM: (interrupts) Oh, would you like a coffee? On the house? The first hit is always free! 😉
LNG: No, thank you, I got my own! 🙂
LNG: So, my first question is, what is the secret ingredient to your success?
PAM: Well, if we stay on the first name we have a secret spelling system here, we love to work with acronyms to really emphasize that we mean business when it comes to motivating our staff. Pret is French for “ready”. So, Pret A Manger means “ready to eat”. Fast food, from already cooked and processed products that arrive daily and are then assembled in the kitchens on the premises. But it is not just food ready to eat, we want our staff to always be “ready to work” come rain come shine, in good days and in bad days, till FS do us part.
L: What’s FS?
P: That’s another meaning, “FS” is the Firing Squad, but officially they are called “HR”, meaning Human Resources, of course. Our HR department have a really great slogan to sell their mission as, “Doing the right thing naturally”, and people buy into this slogan without questioning it, as PC is too common. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? HR don’t do the dismissing themselves, no, they like others to execute this nitty-gritty muddy business. They…
L: (interrupts) What’s PC now?
P: Oh, common’?!
L: Ah, yeah, right. Sorry.
P: Tztz, you didn’t do your homework when preparing for this interview?! You don’t know our 6 P’s?!
L: No, no, yes, uhm, I know them all! (nods, while getting a first glimpse into the intimidation tactics) It’s just a lot to remember what you give your staff to memorize.
P: Yes, that is how brainwashing works, repeated bombardment of silly word games.
P: So, where were we?
L: With HR not doing the dirty work.
P: Ah yeah, so they fire indirectly using their operational side of the business, managers who are tasked to hold hearings that are “fundamentally flawed” as one Tribunal Judge called it, they are unfair and only impartial if we need to cover ourselves.
L: Ah! So, it’s a lot to do with fear management?
P: You got it.
L: And how does the fear management work exactly? Talk me through a typical day in a Pret shop.
P: No problem. First of all, we don’t like to be known as a sandwich “factory”, even though we are hundreds of little sandwich factories. So, we put intensive incentives in place, pay a little bit more here, give a little more holidays there, put on elaborate parties, let the kitchens play loud and fast music to speed up their work pace and avoid them talking too much with each other wasting our precious time, no matter if they get a head ache or a tinnitus etc. etc.
In reality we have no choice but give a little here and there as the job is way too harsh, stressful and non-rewarding. So we apply psychology where we call our sandwich makers “chefs”, let them go through patronizing “graduation” so they assume they achieved something and won’t leave as easily.
L: Ah, clever!
P: Yes, it’s all psychology. We have slogans on our packaging saying “Lovingly made in this kitchen today”, we’re having a laugh with our staff because in this high-paced and stressful environment making something “lovingly” would only be to resign!
But our real main ingredient and the real spelling behind our acronym as already hinted early on is, Pret really is a four letter F-word spelled F E A R. It means Fire Early At Request or with the nickname of “Fret” to make it more appealing. Fear management is the main motivator for our lovely and hard working people, but we facade this in the perfect packaging of “Good Jobs for Good People”. We have a lot of good people, but after a while they get so burned out, feel devalued and dehumanized that they are not “good” anymore, and there are plenty of young people lining up for the job. We give out disciplinaries like napkins, we make sure that our staff always worry about their job security, and we don’t tolerate people being vulnerable (takes a sip from the organic coffee).
L: What do you mean by “vulnerable”?
P: Well, simply inconvenient occasions like bereavement or even mental illness of our staff. We feel that especially bereavement is “imposed” on us. That’s not nice.
L: (looking confused) So, it would be best to not be vulnerable, as staff wouldn’t be safe in their jobs?
P: That’s right.
L: So, if staff are bereaved, or suffer from a mental illness or disability that might affect their day-to-day work, and even if they work still really good while in bereavement, there is no policy in place to protect them from potentially being bullied by superiors?
P: Yes, something like that. We have a large HR department, larger than the IT or even food team. But it isn’t large enough yet, as one of our former employees has exhausted our HR department after being bullied during bereavement and being held low in shops. So we want to expand our HR staff to not let this happen again.
L: Wow! Must have been hard work. But at least you learned from this and won’t let the bullying happen again. That’s great.
P: No, we won’t let it happen again that anyone approaches HR with their concern about bereavement and bullying like this anymore, even though we advised that person (whom the CEO called his “late night girl”) to raise grievances, as we didn’t want to interfere with how the managers were mistreating her. As we don’t have an anti-bullying policy in place to protect the bereaved, we aim to divert to the grievance procedure as we don’t want to admit that we have a huge problem. A grievance procedure often deters the employee to raise the issue formally, as this is quite stressful to have to come up with all the evidence, not to mention becoming a target after speaking up.
For other issues like sexual orientation, pregnant women, physical disabilities, religious beliefs, equal opportunities etc. we have a strong and clear zero tolerance policy on discrimination, because there are laws in place and we would get into trouble if we’d let those groups be bullied. Sometimes we even use any of the above groups in discrimination to get rid of other inconvenient employees, the laws for the protection of the above groups really come in handy here, even if we have to tweak our reason for dismissal a little.
And our luck is that there are no laws to protect the bereaved, we can openly and even in writing express that this is “imposed” on us without any problems. We just don’t really want to bother with grief and mental issues, even while we know that we all will die, and 1 in 4 of us will at one point or another suffer from a mental health condition. Death and illness can happen to any person at any time for any reason. But we don’t want to think about it and want to just concentrate on the material world with all the money that can be made. If you work for us, your mind needs to be of steel and you better have “Metal” Health.
L: Just like a machine or a robot?
L: I see. Hm…
P: You’re catching on fast, I like that.
L: Oh, thank you, I feel honoured! *blushing*
P: So, to finish the thought, we pride ourselves in our HR department. They are super busy with all the grievances raised and disciplinaries issued, and of course the firing squad, ready to fire anytime for any and no reason (checking the phone as a text message comes in).
L: Sounds quite efficient. I’m impressed.
P: Thank you. Yes, could we speed this up a little? I have to attend to some business.
L: Sure, just finally I’d like to throw some questions out that you cannot skip, but have to answer honestly.
P: Uuuh, I’m intrigued, fire away!
L: Who was the first one you ever kissed?
P: Oh, I’ll never forget my first kiss! It was McDonald’s. We even got married so I can get a green card to the U.S. But we are divorced now, as I gotten my green card and dual citizenship now and won’t need McD anymore. But we are still friends.
L: Any kids?
P: Naa, we were always married more to our jobs, and our different tastes in food finally split us up! Career is more important, and as soon as I had my foot in the door to the U.S. our divorce was imminent.
L: It was a “marriage of convenience” then?
P: You got it!
L: I see. Okay, while on the subject of super mergers, what super powers would you like to have?
P: To fire all the shop staff in one go and exchange them with perfect smiley robots that are so real looking to customers unlike the current prototypes, fooling them, and so increase our profits even more. That way we won’t have to deal with staff not being as productive when they go through personal issues like bereavement or illness. We also won’t have to deal with any human being thinking for themselves. But mostly that way we can truly “man” all the tills at all times and have enough staff, almost more than customers. We could even place a human looking robot with each and every customer, raising sales going through the roof. We would also scrap the Misery Shopper, as we won’t need them anymore since we have perfect robots. Can you imagine the amount this would slice off our labour costs and bring out the maximum? (sigh, what a dream!) But it also means that we would need to rethink the HR department, maybe turning them into mechanics fixing the robots when they break. (ponder ponder)
L: Sorry, what did you say, the what? The “Misery” Shopper?? What’s that?
P: Did I say that??
L: Uhm, that’s what I heard.
P: Sorry, I meant the Mystery Shopper *smile*
L: Maybe I just misheard as I had a miserable coffee this morning! The competition hey. Should have gone to Pret instead!
P: Yes, that’s it, it’s all your fault! You misheard, it was your mistake, not mine! It’s one of our important Pret attributes, always blame downwards, never take responsibility. As long as we can smile, we’re fine!
L: Okay back to my questions. What time period would you like to visit, past, present or future?
P: The future, always the future as the present is a blur and the past is done with and not worth keeping fond memories of. We move on quickly, whoever can’t keep up with the pace will be left behind.
L: No regrets then, huh?
P: Hello? We are Pret we don’t regret!
L: I see. Who would you like to collaborate with in business?
P: Anyone and No one. Anyone who could pour more money into us, so that we can squeeze even more out of our workers to repay the investors. We don’t like to share the spoils except only with our HQ people and high up leaders. But if we do have a moment of generosity with our shops, it is mainly to try and keep them before they leave or our aim to win new ones (whispers: Brexit’s advancing fast now).
L: What is your greatest accomplishment?
P: Okay, that’s another tough one, as we have so many. But I would say… (looking up at the ceiling, tapping with the fingers on the coffee cup) I’d say it really is our HR department with that ever impressive slogan of “Doing the right thing naturally”.
L: What do you value so much that you would put your money where your mouth is, so-to-speak?
P: Again, investing in our HR department, making them bigger, even though they are already bigger than any of the other departments. We’d like them to give more disciplinaries, neglecting the bereaved and mentally ill, and fire faster. Any support that is in place, most are just Pret-ense for our own fear of the Tribunal, as we like to live up to our name.
L: Which was what again?
P: F E A R.
L: Ah yeah, that’s right.
L: What was the moment when you felt you’ve made it?
P: When our staff bought into fear management and unnecessary pressure.
L: What was the scariest encounter you’ve ever had?
P: Tribunal Judges at first, but when we lose our case in court, we just pay the peanuts the Judges order us to pay in compensation and then go back to business as usual. Our most scariest encounter will always be the customers and public pressure, not to mention the Unions!
L: And the greatest?
P: All our hard working people in the shops, especially those with integrity and longevity during hard times. We really feel intimidated by them, as they show real passion which we only Pret-end to have for them. But don’t tell them, they need to think that they are not valued and their work is never good enough, so they work harder until they burn out and are exchanged with “fresh blood”. It’s like one of our main acronyms: FIFO, First In First Out or our internal acronym BPOFBI: Black Pudding Out Fresh Blood In. If they find out our tactics, it would also be the most embarrassing encounter, but that’s between us.
L: Of course! You do love your acronyms and slogans, don’t you?
P: (Smiling) It’s what makes Pret PRet!
L: Yes, Pret is next to nothing when it comes to PR.
P: That’s right, we are especially successful in this by employing former homeless people to confirm this when the pressure on us gets high to explain why we treat our staff so poorly. The CEO invites a group once a year to his private Austrian property, and that way we win them for our reputation to speak up for us should we reap criticism from the public regarding staff treatment. We also aim to not integrate them too much into regular Pret shops, but are working on having shops run entirely by former homeless people, as they won’t cope in the long-run in a regular mainstream Pret shop, with all the bullying and high stress environment. It wouldn’t look good on our PR.
L: Makes sense. To continue with the questions, which food item are you currently working on to be the best selling of all time, not only in Pret but in the world.
P: Well, now you want to know some secrets here, what food item our food team is working on. I can’t let you in on that one, even though I agreed to do an open and honest interview. But I will say this much: it has to do with the Hearts of our staff.
L: Interesting! Similar to dishes like Liver Mousse or Kidney Pâté, but only with Hearts? Like Hearts on a Platter? Are some Minds part of the new stew as well? Oooh, I can’t wait for the new product launch!!
P: (motions with a gesture of sealed lips)
L: What, if any, is your hidden talent?
P: Doing the wrong thing naturally.
L: On a personal level, which instrument would you like to play?
P: Hearts and Minds.
L: You can only choose one!
P: That’s not fair! I can’t choose! *biting on the coffee lid*
L: Well, strive for perfection here, a little extra mile will go a long way.
P: Okay Minds, as Hearts are often broken already and useless therefor. The Mind still needs tuning and somewhat breaking like a wild horse that is thinking on its feet too much. We are not in the horse whispering business, we break them!
L: Starbucks or Caffee Nero?
L: Prosciutto or Posh Cheddar?
P: Well, since we go towards more Vegan, it would be Hearts. Organic Hearts of course!
L: Of course!
L: Mystery Shopper visits or Senior Management visits.
P: (regaining posture after the Heart vs Mind decision) Senior Management visits of course, we love to see the nervousness and fear on the faces of our managers and teams when we walk into shops.
L: Makes sense, that F E A R thing again, I really get to know you now and how consistent you are, very reliable.
P: (lifting the head with pride) Thank you. Now I am almost blushing.
L: Comedy or Drama?
P: Since we have too much Drama already, I’d choose Comedy, although they both go very close together in our company.
L: Which micromanaging rule are you most proud of and why?
P: Letting our staff sign countless training rules without having the time to really train. We just like to cover our backs.
L: Which other countries would you like to conquer for Pret?
P: The whole world of course, even jungles where the monkeys live.
L: While on the subject of monkeys, if you were an animal, what would you be?
P: A Pret-Bull.
P: We like to look intimidating to our staff, but they don’t know that barking dogs don’t bite. We only bite together in groups and when we smell fear, which brings us back to fear management.
L: All well thought out then.
P: Yes. Are you sure you don’t want that coffee? It’s free!
L: No, thank you.
L: Final question, what was the best advise you’ve ever received?
P: Hire fast and fire even faster. Made today, gone today.
L: Thank you.
P: Well, that was fun!
L: Yeah, wasn’t that bad, was it? It must feel good to be honest.
P: Absolutely, never thought it would feel so relieving. I’ve learned a lot about myself today. Well, unfortunately, since it is lunch time I have to get back to the pub with my OPs managers for a few pints while our good and hard working people make it happen for us.
L: Of course, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule. And thank you for this imaginary but honest and open interview.
P: Any time! And let me know whenever you want that free coffee 😉
L: Thank you. But no thank you. I am on my way to interview Sainsbury’s, one of the big ones to have signed up for the Disability Confident employer scheme, I want to avoid too many toilet breaks during this important interview.
P: Disability what?
L: Never mind, you wouldn’t be interested in that.
P: I guess you’re right. We need to keep that fear thing going.
L: That’s what I meant. Thanks again. See you again soon. *not*
P: Yes, oh while you are with them, could you ask them if they would be keen to have a Pret shop inside their supermarkets, like Costa does with Tesco with those rather unhygienic coffee vending machines automates? That way at least we could Pret-end again to be part of this Disability thing you talk about without really being part of it of course. 😉
L: I see what I can do… *not*
I worked at Pret A Manger and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the now “retired” former CEO Clive Schlee. I declined 4 settlement offers if I am silent about my ordeal. But I rather speak out to help others. For an overview of important blog entries of my experience with Pret, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”. The little arrow to the right next to each heading will lead directly to the post.
An incomplete list on what other Pret staff say about Pret’s bullying environment: Caught in the Act Bullying at Pret.
I tell my story for the first time verbally in below audio player interview on a podcast by The Adam Paradox, and wrote two articles in the Scottish Left Review.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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