Or the art of gaslighting someone.
I wasn’t manipulated to think that I was insane, I was manipulated to think that I was not bullied, that there was no conspiracy against me and that they cared, only wanting to help. I was spied upon and used for personal advancement in psychological studies. And I am glad I kept all the text messages and emails regarding this. With hindsight so much makes sense now.
I worked in Pret A Manger for almost 10 years. After 7 years in a Team Leader position front of house, my brother died in December 2014, but I learned of his death 5 weeks later in January 2015. The shock and trauma I entered into I cannot even describe and have just touched upon on other blog entries, but I pretty quickly went into autopilot. After all the errands, flying back and forth between London and Germany for funeral, family and investigating what has happened, I had no choice but to continue to work. I lost my savings due to the travels, bills, errands etc. and tried to juggle work with coming to terms. In hindsight I should have taken an immediate 6 months sabbatical plus rest holidays and unpaid leave. But I couldn’t afford to take off that long without income, and I did not expect not only to get no support at work, but that I would be bullied in the middle of this nightmare!
In hindsight looking at the events and the writings (work emails and my file I later applied for) my trouble really started after I approached HR in May 2015. Between January and May 2015 after the travel back and forth I was put on mostly late shifts for 5 months with few exceptions. This meant I was home by close to 10pm which isolated me from vital support from friends who were off in the evenings while I worked, and who worked in the mornings while I was off. In the first few weeks I didn’t mind and didn’t even notice because I was in a cloud of shock and grief. I couldn’t sleep before 4 or 5am anyway being tortured from trying to make sense of what happened.
But after weeks of late shifts and few occasions where I met with friends for dinner or a concert, some friends were talking about a movie they saw which I wanted to see from the trailer I saw a while ago. I said to my friends to let me know next time they go to a film because I may want to join. One friend said to me, “I don’t even call you anymore because you’re always working.” This hit me, because I realized then how many late shifts I was on but didn’t even notice at first because I was like in a trance of grief, going to work and home on autopilot. I was a different person, like a zombie…
After some struggle with my line manager who refused to give me rotating shifts so I can be with friends, I asked for a transferal to another branch and was moved to a different area. As the move happened I also asked for an informal appointment with HR not to complain or raise a grievance, even though I had reasons to, but just to make suggestions and bring points on how to support bereaved employees. Little did I know that by doing so I put a target on my back. Only now do I understand why so few people approach HR as Prince William points out after some research they have done.
Would I approach HR now after what I’ve been through? Yes absolutely, I would. But never ever alone again and always having someone take notes for me. In my informal approaching HR (2 HR people at the meeting plus 1 area manager) in May 2015 one HR person took notes on a laptop, but when I applied for my file I also asked for these notes but was told that they got “lost”. These notes would have proven that I was not offered any support as the People Business Partner (PBP), who was present at the meeting, later alleged. So yes, I would approach HR informally again and again to make suggestions, but never ever alone anymore, and not without having my own notes taken.
I will try and squeeze the first 6+ months of my turmoil in few sentences, but in a nutshell one particular area manager who was the boss of my immediate line manager at the new shop really had an eye on me, targeting me by using several managers against me. This area manager was under the guidance of the HR People Business Partner I met in the May 2015 meeting as I would learn months later after having applied for my file reading all their emails about me.
My line manager would rebuke me constantly, especially in group emails that he used to communicate with us leaders. Another situation was where I was moved to a shop to help with other leaders who were sent there to fix a situation that went completely out of control in that shop and new leadership was implemented. The interim manager constantly threatened us new leaders with our job security (and would later label me, in an email to the main area manager who targeted me, a “drama queen” after I told her about my turmoil having lost my brother and that her harshness on top of it wasn’t helping). I was sent back and forth between different shops as this particular area manager tried to get rid of me after her targeting me for small mistakes didn’t work.
I was excluded in leader’s meetings, openly rebuked in group emails and in team briefs until I finally had a breakdown which also was partly because it was 2 days before the first anniversary of my brother’s death. I completely collapsed in a nervous breakdown. Later in my file I read where this same PBP who was involved since my May 2015 informal approach of HR, wrote to the area manager advising her that she should not deal with this formally “yet” (with my breakdown where I broke down and cried hysterically in the team brief after being rebuked again by my boss in front of the team). In other words he advised for her to slow down because as he wrote that “this time it is no doubt a difficult time for her”, meaning that my brother’s first anniversary was two days away and I was distraught already as it was. But I could not believe my eyes! He advised her to not deal with me formally “yet” as I had “no doubt” a difficult time at this time! As if all the time before I had a jolly good laugh! I could not believe what I was reading and went from shock to shock!
This PBP also responded to an email I sent to the main HR email address that I want this time to raise a grievance myself (as the first grievance was raised by an HR advisor who heard my side of the story after first only knowing the bullying area manager’s version), this PBP just replied by writing very superficially, “I’m sorry you had a breakdown…” some bla bla and then sent me back to the area manager who was the catalyst for my turmoil, unbeknown to me under the direction of this PBP. In the email he never asked me what happened or why I had a breakdown, if I am okay etc. Nothing! Just this two-faced sentence “I’m sorry you had a breakdown.” I could not get out of this Twilight Zone situation.
This and other of his emails was a clear sign how involved this HR People Business Partner was. And it makes sense, as he is a BUSINESS Partner. It’s all about business! They are not concerned about people, about the staff, no matter what they go through. The grievance I raised against him, based on this and other emails I read months later in my file, was of course a joke as they just substantiated a little thing. This PBP stood outside when the HR advisor walked me out of the grievance hearing that I raised against him, and he winked over to the HR advisor while I walked next to her.
I had to learn my lesson hard that one does not have any chance with a corrupt and toxic HR department, and this one in particular that conducts hearings which a Tribunal Judge called “fundamentally flawed”. But at the time I was like in a pitch dark room, stumbling my way around trying to find the light switch, asking those for help who were the problem in the first place! They had a laugh all the way through.
To try and keep it short to come to the “gaslight” situation, I finally involved the CEO after having tried for almost a year to speak with my bosses and HR about the treatment I experienced. Only then some support started, but I was continuously placed under manipulative and bullying management. I was also made to doubt my experience and the situation was even turned around at times and later in the grievance hearings. In one appeal’s hearing the hearing manager asked me what my definition of bullying is! I couldn’t believe it. They tried to make me doubt that I was bullied! And it worked somewhat. I ended up even apologizing for my breakdown and can only shake my head now! I was made to be the “villain” not the victim. It was incredible, I even apologized many times to my bosses, to HR, to colleagues, and yet it was THEM who did the wrong and needed to apologize to me. I was just completely in a Twilight Zone, lost in a fog of trauma and grief.
I raised several grievances in the course of different months not fully understanding how systemic this bad management in Pret is. I was moved again to another shop in which the mistreatment took on a different “mask”. At first the manager was shouting like most manager are, I resisted this and even became so unwell that I ended up on sick leave for 3 months where I then had my first massive panic attack! After returning to work the manager changed tactics. He hardly gave me more than 35 hours a week even though I asked many times, while several colleagues worked 60 or even 70 hour weeks who didn’t want to work so many hours.
Or on another occasion he asked me if I can stay a few hours longer to cover for someone who called sick, to which I agreed as I needed more working hours, which he knew how desperate I was for more hours, having lost all my savings. And just before I was to start the extra hours he changed his mind. There was a strong sense of control and manipulation from this manager which I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but always felt uncomfortable while blaming my own traumatic loss and grief. Now in hindsight I can see so many situations where he was controlling, manipulative and discriminating. This is the same line manager who would tell me that he didn’t want the area (his manager colleagues in the area) to feel sorry for him anymore, because I was moved to his shop. Some of my colleagues found that he was controlling and unfair, and in a grievance I raised against him in the end, the witnesses I stated were not interviewed by the hearing manager, as she was under the direction of HR. It was systemic and never ever stopped, no matter what shop I was in.
I started to email Pret, friends, therapists, everyone. I entered into an emailing “cramp” for a period of time that turned into ill and out of control emailing. Only in 2017 it dawned on me why I may have entered into this crazy behaviour, which worsened after I started to drink when I received my file that had many emails about and against me.
I received the news of my brother’s death via a concise and business-like email; my line manager would rebuke me via group emails; my file that I applied for contained many negative and accusing emails about me… and in a weird way the affect it had that I did not reply to my brother’s last email to me about 5 weeks before he died, subconsciously my mind just wanted to email him back. It’s a screwed up complexity our minds can enter into when traumatized. But these email occasions catapulted me into an emailing-spree I have slowly recovered from. I write about this extensively on this entry.
I received a warning by the Head of HR, which would have been appropriate, but was unfair because my line manager was being kept informed about my emailing and I even told him twice in frustration that I am doing these crazy emailing, but the first time he only replied, “Yeah, but I don’t judge you” and just walked off. The second time he said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to put my nose in it.” He was having a laugh! How can my boss not be bothered with craziness of one of his team members, especially a leader that I was?! My boss didn’t care, even laughed about it while the Head of HR was warning me. Later the CEO would even call me his “late night girl” (late night emails) introducing me to the Director of HR! Discrimination and laughs, my emailing was a source of fun for them. It became clear that the Head of HR wanted to get rid of me but was worried this would backfire as I was mistreated on several occasions.
I became suicidal, went from therapist to therapist, to Suicide Support charities, to A&E mental health liaison team, back to my GP, back to the community, back to craziness, anxiety and continued mistreatment which by then was more subtle in controlling and holding me low at work. It was one big mess under the watchful eye of HR.
The final thing they did was the most disrespectful thing that they have done and that I have ever experienced, they used a Development Manager (DM) from HQ to give me a disciplinary. What was so unbelievable in this was that this DM supposedly lost her brother in a very similar way I have lost mine. I still don’t know if that story is true as she turned out to have been quite manipulative and dishonest. A Psychologist doing an assessment with me while I still worked in Pret said that she was “abusive”. This is where the gaslight situation really kicks in and how ingrained abusive and manipulative Pret’s approach is.
In the disciplinary hearing she already told me about her brother briefly when the HR advisor left the room to get the notes printed out. In hindsight that was planned so that I take the disciplinary well, which I did, I even embraced it! She even spoke a little further about her brother when the HR advisor has returned back to the room. She gave me the disciplinary for my emailing (electronic communication), but she then entered into unallowed (officially!) personal contact with me the very next day. Not only that, but our communication was solely via electronic means via text message and some emailing! Never a phone call, never a meeting. She initially wanted to meet up to interview me for an essay she was writing for her university studies. She was studying to be a Psychotherapist and wanted to write an essay on anger. As I was very angry due to that and how my brother died, the unanswered questions, how I was bullied on top of it. My bereavement was about 90% just anger which reflected in the emails that they had a laugh about. But I declined to participate in her essay project as I didn’t know her, and so the meeting didn’t take place.
I was ecstatic about this “coincidence” and felt hope that there is someone who knows what I am going through. I was so gobsmacked, yet blind to their plan. I was amazed and hopeful that there was a person in THIS city, in THIS company, in THIS room who had the SAME loss??? Our brothers died 2 months apart from each other in their flats and lay there for days before they were found??? Really??? Mine did, I know that, but if her story is true, I am now not so sure anymore.
The contact became quickly very confusing for several reasons. Little things like after she gave me her personal phone number while I also had her professional work phone number from the disciplinary letter. But her professional phone had on its Whatsapp avatar a painting her brother did (if he existed!), but her personal phone’s avatar on Whatsapp had no picture whatsoever! A very personal picture regarding her brother on her WORK phone, while on her private phone, nothing! Not even a picture of a tree or a flower like some people have, nothing! That always puzzled me but I kept forgetting to ask her about this.
Then she was always so secretive, didn’t want me to talk to others that we spoke, which later I understood because as the hearing manager for the disciplinary she wasn’t allowed to be in contact with me, but of course HR was aware as this was their plan! She was later even excused for this when I raised this when I was fired. But I was so dumb that I assumed Pret was supporting me via her as she understood this common grief. But I always said to her that it wasn’t fair that they used her. I later explained that true care would have been that HR could have gotten us in contact OUTSIDE the disciplinary and let another hearing manager do the hearing. But them using her, and worse even, for her to allow them to step on her and my dignity like this, the only word I can find for this is: perverse. But at the time while still in a fog of confusion, in reality I should have immediately stood up and smelled the rat, but I was so blind, still in Trauma, still fighting this subtle control from my boss… etc.
And the greatest confusion and where the abuse and manipulation gets into full gear was that she played three roles in one:
1 – Professionally she was the hearing manager giving me the disciplinary (used by HR), especially since she is not an HR personnel but a Development Manager training people!
2 – Personally we shared our brothers’ fate, so it was like a friendship. We went from complete stranger one day in the disciplinary hearing to very personal contact the next day!
3 – Psychologically because she is also a Hypnotherapist and NLP Practitioner. And this is true because I found her on the National Hypnotherapy Society website which is the governing body over her. She displayed elements of therapy and also wanted my input for a paper she wrote for university as she was also studying to become a Psychotherapist. She was writing an essay on Anger and wanted my input straight in the beginning of our contact, but I declined as I didn’t know her well.
So, it was a complete mix-up of roles which confused and frustrated me further and restarted my emailing again. She befriended me, getting personal information, abusing my trust where she even “demanded” trust in the beginning. I held back on a lot of things, but opened up on other things which aren’t that important, but still it was personal information. She would ask me subtle personal questions which puzzled me at times, in hindsight she was fishing for information to pass on to HR as well as use it for her studies. Some info they then used to fire me, while excusing her conduct. I am glad I kept all the written correspondence. It was also confusing in the beginning that she never wanted to talk on the phone and canceled meeting up, everything was done in writing. And I am sure she kept all the correspondence as well, I hope one day she faces the damage and abuse done. I write about her manipulation extensively in another blog entry called “The Double Agent”.
On a side note, she is governed under this therapy body who have a commitment right on their front page that I have not seen on other therapy sites: “Our accredited Register status helps to ensure the safety and protection of the public.” I find this odd, as if they have therapists who are not working for the safety and protection of the public. This Development Manager certainly is not adhering to safety and protection and abused her position and my trust.
I was fired three days after Christmas 2017 while my father was in intensive care just out of a coma.
Because I was so traumatized and out-of-sync I couldn’t see straight, and only with hindsight and distance are so many things crystal clear. I did file a Tribunal claim but withdrew because my father just died and my mental health can’t see through to the end without a lawyer. And yes, I did try to find another job while still working in Pret, but I lost my self-esteem, couldn’t sell myself, everything felt extremely “gloomy” and I was like a “piece of meat” that was whacked constantly. I survived to write about this and will never be silent, no matter what threats, tricks and traps they employ. I rejected yet another settlement agreement of peanuts that would have also hindered me to go to court against the Development Manager. I rejected all 4 settlement offers, not only because the amount was so offensively small, but because I don’t sign my rights away, no matter how high the amount.
In a mix of pain, anger and sarcasm I wrote about this “encounter” in Monkey Business.
It is needless to say that Hypnotherapy and NLP wouldn’t be desired therapy forms for me. All the NLP practitioners in Pret that I know, I have come to know as dishonest people. I don’t know what it is with NLP, but it seems to have great potential to manipulate people if these tools are used wrongly.
So, in hindsight ALL the managers, HQ people, HR work systemic to only advance business. It is never about people, it is always about money. Anyone who becomes inconvenient, especially in bereavement and approaching HR to make suggestions for improvement.
I was sliding from traumatic event to traumatic event for 3 years and my lesson from this is that you absolutely can and must trust your gut. Because of this systemic nature where the majority of people work together like marionettes where a toxic HR department pulls the strings the only way to deal with this kind of toxic work place is indeed to leave if raising issues does not work.
People will always continue to give reviews on Pret like the one below and on the same lines of bullying and discriminating work environment.
I am still recovering. And I will never be silent.
Concise list of chosen “Quotes of the Day” taken from the Staff Complaints to highlight the common thread of the problem in all of Pret in different countries and cities.
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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