Recruiting for Personality rather than Skill can be Fatal!

A few years ago I already dissected an article where Pret’s HR Director Andrea Wareham was interviewed. “Pret’s People Management Secrets” from HR Magazine. In this interview Andrea Wareham shares a lot about the typical Pret PR bla bla. But one sentence stands out to me which is typical Pret, but also dangerous.

Quote: »Pret famously recruits for behaviours, “personality rather than skills” as Wareham puts it, and these, she adds, are “relevant in every market”.«

When I worked at Pret it always astounded me how little many shop Managers knew of the job they were hired to do. Those staff members in lower positions who had more knowledge than some shop Managers due to experience and skill, were exploited and the Manager took credit for it.

It often bothered me how the “wrong” people got promoted and those who knew how to do the job where kept low.

In an unlisted video on YouTube (why unlisted?) new CEO Pano Christou even inadvertently gives away how poor the training in Pret is. He shares how when he did stock take for the first or second time, that he stayed until 4 o’clock the next morning! And that’s exactly how it is in Pret. The training is so poor and even Managers often are clueless that especially new staff have to stay long (unpaid!) hours to figure out how things work! Before I worked at Pret, I worked in many different food places, most of my life I worked in hospitality industry, in wine bars, restaurants, a canteen, a hotel. But never did I have to stay longer hours to figure out how things are done than in Pret! It was the most frustrating thing not being trained and not being given time to train others!

If people are trained and have skills, especially since Pano Christou was a Manager at McDonald’s before he joined Pret as an Assistant Manager, there would be NO NEED to stay until 4 o’clock the next morning to know how to do a stock take and other issues!

Pano should have known the job already, or at least picked it up quicker as he had previous Management experience. Unless he kissed his way up, like so many do. In Pret people also get promoted through the bedroom, and then more than few are incapable to do the job and rely on lower ranked staff to do all the hard work!

Pret is famous for their smiley staff, but since I write about it more extensively since 2018 it has become more common knowledge that this smiley culture is driven by weekly Mystery Shoppers. I wrote a few posts about it and made some YouTube slides as my blog is heavily censored on Facebook and Instagram where it is completely blocked. Even private messages are deleted automatically by algorithm when I link to my blog as Pret must have reported me, thus FB, Insta put me on a black list. But YouTube isn’t blocked.

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Journalist Timothy Noah wrote a brilliant article on Pret’s emotional labour (labor in US English) that Pret enforces low-wage employees to perform. “The enforced happiness of Pret A Manger“. I really recommend reading this article! And oh, how I remember the mental agony to have to smile, chat, present a happy facade, just to get a few more peanuts. And even during already traumatic bereavement I was expected to “leave my problems at home and wear a smile like I wear my uniform”! Real words of one of my Managers after we lost bonus for not smiling! Low-wage staff have to act like emotional prostitutes and acrobatic clowns to make Pret look good and as a happy place!

Noah wrote this article in 2013, a year after the first public “scandal” hit Pret when Andrej Stopa was fired for having started a trade union. Noah was one of the first, if not THE first journalist to take a closer look at Pret and write critical about the company when no-one dared to write critically. In fact, most journalists, even to this day write ecstatic positive articles about Pret.

Noah points out what former CEO Clive Schlee said about staff touching each other, quote: »”The first thing I look at,” Chief Executive Clive Schlee told The Telegraph last March, “is whether staff are touching each other . . . I can almost predict sales on body language alone.”«

Pret’s previous Mystery Shopper requirements even was that Pret aims to “attend to EACH customer’s NEEDS” … and aims to “connect with EVERY customer with eye contact, a smile and some polite remarks”. The weekly Mystery Shopper is then tasked to comment on how low-wage staff smile etc. and give points accordingly.

Excerpts of the old Mystery Shopper reports before Pret changed the wording but kept the expectations via Managers:

Since I write extensively about Pret’s Mystery Shopper scheme which has surprised many customers who assumed that staff give freebies out of “random acts of kindness”, while in reality staff are almost guaranteed to receive the £100 reward when giving a freebie to the Mystery Shopper, or the MS at least witnessing this “generosity”!

And Clive Schlee to me served like the Ronald McDonald of Pret. He was the friendly clown that was approachable to customers and staff alike, while in reality putting a rigorous Mystery Shopper scheme in place and manipulating staff with brainwashing slogans, and expecting touch to portray a wholesome and happy company … all to increase sales.

And yet, we all wonder how on earth can TWO customers die in Pret, a third customer narrowly surviving and at least nine more injured due to unlabelled allergen in the food. Pret IGNORED the multiple warnings to label their food, even after customers have died and got injured, Pret kept smiling and went full steam ahead doing business as usual. Pret only started slowly to implement product labelling AFTER customer deaths became public! I worked at Pret when 2 customers died and we weren’t even informed of this. Not even a HINT to be more cautious and diligent with labelling and allergen. Nothing! The emphasis was ALWAYS to drop every task, run on till, smile, serve customers fast and present a happy facade. Personality is more important in Pret than skill!

Link

If you don’t know what you’re doing and just “look” the part, but neglect life saving issues, you shouldn’t be hired or run a business! Smiling and having a bubbly personality is a plus, but without skills it’s useless for the health and safety of staff and customers alike! Clive Schlee, the Ronald McDonald of Pret has proven time and again how clueless he was:

Alicia Turrell deleted her Twitter account, so this link is gone. But to zoom in on what former CEO Clive Schlee responded to an open letter, shows how he lacked skills and knowledge on how to approach the lack of labelling that several customers pointed out, including a lawsuit BEFORE the first customer died.

Schlee’s patronizing, appalling and plain clueless response:

»Dear Alicia,
I am sitting in Gatwick Airport waiting to board my flight and I have been reading your discursive open letter to Pret. I must say you have a charming, self deprecating writing style and it was very gracious of you to mention so many good things about Pret. I am Pret’s CEO.
You also make your point about allergen information. To be honest, I am not exactly sure how to respond. I think you are telling us to train our staff better. I can’t argue with that. I think you are suggesting we treat allergens more seriously. Again, fair point. Is there anything else that you would specifically like [u]s to do?
With best wishes
Clive«

I am not a fan of Wetherspoons or any food/drink chain at that, and at least their staff have started standing up with Unions. But I heard an interview of founder and CEO Tim Martin recently on Desert Island Discs from 2017. He said something that positively surprised me and maybe because pub business is a different animal from cafe/restaurant business in customer service to some extend, but he mentioned something on how staff present themselves.

Then presenter Kirsty Young asks Martin at around 26 minutes in the interview, quote: »And when you are chatting, as you are doing every week to managers and deputy managers and bar staff, do you ever say to them, “never ever say this to the customer?«

Martin replies: »No. And I also tell them, “you don’t have to smile either”.«

Kirsty Young: »You tell them they DON’T have to smile?«

Martin: »They don’t have to smile, no! We don’t go out of our way to tell them to be nice, because I think that puts too much pressure on people. I think when you go to a pub you get a beer, someone’s natural personality will emerge better if they are not under too much pressure, which of course they are under tremendous pressure anyway. Some of our best bar staff are quite grumpy

I cut out that part from the above program:

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Or in the closing words of Timothy Noah’s superb article on Pret’s emotional labour enforcement: »Now that I know Pret’s slender blonde doesn’t love me, I prefer the human contact at a D.C. lunch counter called C.F. Folks. The food is infinitely better. But I also like that the service is slower, the staff is older and grumpier, and the prevailing emotion is “Get over yourself.” Try touching someone at C.F. Folks, and you just might get slugged.«

Another brilliant article on emotional labour I have listed in “The Dangers of Emotional Labour” is by Sophie McBain “How Emotional Labour Harms us All“.

I say it again, recruiting for (fake or even true) cheerful personality rather than skill can be fatal!

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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.

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Thank you for reading/listening.

©2017 – Present: expret.org


Interview:

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©2017 – Present: expret.org, poetrasblok.com, LateNightGirl.org unless otherwise stated. All Rights reserved. Disclaimer.

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