I want to address something that I have been part of and influenced under, which many people from the “outside” have asked about, or cannot understand without having been under this kind of work environment.
If you are a new reader to my blog, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”, an overview to my experience as a former employee of Pret A Manger and what I’ve survived under Pret’s leadership including CEO, HR, HQ staff. My story sounds like out of a twisted Hollywood script, but I have written evidence and my open confrontation of Pret on Twitter, Facebook etc. is met with Pret reporting me and letting social media platforms “shadow ban” my accounts. Shadow banning is secret censorship Twitter denies doing, where my Tweets and comments are hidden from the public at times. But I keep writing as I almost lost my life in this toxic work environment.
My response to this lie:
Regular readers know my story, but as a brief introduction:
I worked for almost 10 years in Pret on the shop floor, for the most part as a Team Leader (Front of House Leader, also called Floor Leader – FL). The kitchens have their own team leadership, Kitchen Leader (KL) responsible for running the kitchen teams and production. FLs are responsible for running the shops. All leaders responsibilities, apart from looking after the teams, is like being a mini-manager. The Leaders are actually the ones who do the real work, where the General Managers (GMs) are often sitting in the office, getting paid for shouting at teams, not being trained properly in people- and leadership skills.
Leaders look after health & safety, do the ordering, waste management, look after customers, work on “busting the queues”, make sure the Mystery Shopper requirements are met, organize the teams and many other responsibilities. In all their hard work they are being underpaid, overworked and always blamed. Many bear under this to rise on the career ladder to become just another complacent manager getting paid for sitting in the office and being off most weekends.
After 7 years in Pret my brother died, which my family and I didn’t know for 5 weeks that he was dead and already cremated! I am still putting the puzzle pieces together, investigating myself what happened, what is fact, what is fiction, why everything was handled so apathetically and carelessly by the police, what legal options I have not able to afford legal aid. The only “consolation” I was given by the police was, that once they rule out fowl play, they are not interested in the cause of death anymore and hand the case back to the coroner. Too much paper work frankly. Of course, would it have been one of their own, they would go to town to investigate AND find relatives before completely “destroying” my brother’s remains! No chance of getting an autopsy even after burial.
I went into a mental war zone that I am still moving in, even though much calmer now, but in my mind I am in a grey wasteland.
What made it even worse, and to this day I cannot believe I went through this, was that I had not only no support from Pret, but was bullied and targeted by superiors under the watchful eye of HR. Some support started after I contacted the CEO having tried for almost a year to raise issues of bullying with HR, unbeknown to me at the time that this put a target on my back. Yes, this sounds unbelievable, and if anyone doubts this, I have plenty of written evidence and confront Pret including the CEO Clive Schlee, mainly on Twitter openly.
Clive Schlee patronized me, having a laugh by calling me his “late night girl” which I explain on my blog. But now they neither respond, nor do anything except letting Twitter and Facebook secretly censor me (shadow ban) by hiding my posts from the public and even isolating my account from supporters where I don’t get notified at times of their Tweets.
I also want to point out the fact that Pret did not act on numerous customer warnings regarding allergen labelling, even after TWO customers died, a third nearly fatal and several hospitalized over time, that should send alarm bells through the public.
But this is another blog entry on how the public is lulled in with slogans, sweet-talk, free coffees (that are funded by prices being increased) and an approachable CEO with a smiley facade. I question even if he really is behind all “his” tweets as he told us once that he has trusted people who answer mails for him when his work load gets too much. And as I have emails from the CEO and know how he writes, I doubt he’s behind all his tweets. But that’s not important and I leave it as speculation.
So, the main issues I want to point to can be found as I linked above to the overview: “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”
I started in Pret in 2008 just when Bridgepoint purchased Pret and started to squeeze the life out of staff, with high targets to open on every corner. One recent article by The Times briefly scratches on this, “Pret was the best thing since sliced bread but private equity ruined it”.
Quote: “To my surprise, I also find myself feeling bothered by the sheer number of Pret outlets in London. … It’s obvious what the owners are trying to do. As one veteran private equity investor put it recently: “We buy a business, work out how many restaurants you can get away with in an area until it’s become saturated, then try to convince a new buyer that there is plenty more runway”.”
I remember noticing the increase of Pret shops from around 2009-ish on. I cannot compare to pre-2008 but heard that it used to be a little easier, and certainly with much more staff, even though still harsh and fast paced. But all I knew was from 2008 onward. From the beginning I felt the stress, but as I am a hard worker having worked in the food business almost all my life, I just put it down to just being a very busy work environment. Yet, I always told my teams where Pret was their first job, that Pret is very different to all the other companies I worked in three countries over the years.
I had a life, I had friends, projects, all the usual things one enjoys. I managed to not take the stress home too much, although was complaining to friends a lot. And here is where a lot of people also make the mistake, I often narrowed it down to me being very efficient, passionate about everything I do, and thinking I just expect too much. With expecting too much, I mean that to me very normal things like: integrity, honesty, hard work, communication, training etc. was a given. And in my previous employment I either did not experience any bull-crap or I was completely ignorant of it. I don’t know. All I know is I never had issues at work.
I expect a lot from myself and often thought that my expectations were too high. So, I stood back and made the mistake to come under intense stress and harshness. I always understood that leadership has in its word and meaning “lead”. We all lead by example, no matter if good or bad example. But in Pret I and colleagues were always perplex about the lack of integrity of managers, the lack of efficiency and care. But you go on, do your job, go home and have a life.
I used to visit 3, 4 and at times 5 events per week. I am a sucker for live gigs and music in general. I visited over 100+ concerts, theater productions, museums, art events in 5+ years. I traveled, especially visiting family in Germany and friends in the U.S. where I used to live. I was extremely active in my personal life. I published a book of German texts, worked on projects for other artists, enjoyed dinners and cinema with friends. And even while Pret was stressful, I managed often to shrug off the harsh management, complaining to friends, but getting on with my personal passions.
And then my brother died.
What happened then, I would have never ever imagined could happen. I knew Pret was a tough place to work in, but I am no stranger to hard work and just got on with it. Again, I had the wrong expectation to assume Pret would support me as a longtime staff member, or as an employee, no matter how long my service. I write extensively about the bullying I went through while already traumatically bereaved and in shock.
During the main issues of being targeted I applied for my employee file as I tried to understand why the harshness even during bereavement kept happening. One of the emails by a People Business Partner, who responded to a mail from an HR advisor who was the note taker of the first grievance appeal’s hearing against a bullying line manager. I said in the hearing that there is no support and the HR advisor passed this on. Later in another grievance hearing this PBP changed his mind after I pointed out his email. He then said that maybe in hindsight he made a mistake.
It was a complete fog and confusion. In hindsight a lot of this was “gaslighting”, making me think that I was the problem, making me think that I was not bullied, even with all the written evidence I presented, they pretended I was not bullied. In another Tribunal where the Judge ruled unfair dismissal, the Judge also concluded that Pret’s grievance and then appeals hearings were “fundamentally flawed” at the top of page 10 with the check marks. I also went through flawed hearing after flawed hearing which I cover in other posts. And the PBP saying that in Hindsight he made a mistake had me speechless and in a Twilight Zone.
The email regarding my pointing out the lack of support:
So, him changing his mind later in a hearing after I pointed out his email, was just another typical way of Pret leadership playing games. But I just crumbled again and again.
My system just switched into autopilot, while working extremely well and making the mistake to approach Pret’s HR with suggestions on how to better support bereaved staff. 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, that only 2% of employees approach HR regarding mental health issues. After my trauma with Pret I understand why so few try to raise awareness and/or make suggestions to HR.
I wrote it somewhere before that I still would approach any HR department again, but this time not alone and not without a note-taker, as Pret “lost” an important document which I applied for in my file. Their note-taker took notes that would have proven that I had no support. But because I never experienced anything remotely of a hell I experienced in Pret, I always approached leadership alone, knowing I act with integrity, came with open hands, but I had to learn my lesson hard.
This is why I write so bluntly and intensely now and have a zero tolerance on bullshit!
But during that time, I blamed myself for having been bullied, I blamed myself for being a burden. I even apologized for a nervous breakdown I had in the office during a team brief after being shouted at in front of my team, two days before the first anniversary of my bother’s death. I put it down to my own grief and what psychologists call, “sibling survivor guilt” having survived my brother. I always knew how well I worked, and it is not cocky when I say that I was one of the best team leaders. I know how well I work and I know all the feedback from my teams, customers and Mystery Shoppers. But when you work under insecure management who pretend that your work is never good enough to pull you down on their level, it’s a constant struggle to figure out what’s going on, why are you not promoted, but held low etc.
I am not a psychologist, but I know that human beings are prone to come under a cloud of suppression and get used to it because they have pure intentions and blame themselves. This is being taken advantage of. One Pret Assistant Manager review highlights the lack of self-respect here very clearly:
“Respect yourself don’t let managers overload you” Link
But Team Members and especially Team Leaders have no choice, because they are manipulated and often subtly to even openly threatened with their job security. Or a very common tactic is to give them unfavourable shifts where the manager knows that a TM either cannot work, or does not like certain shifts. I was given the minimum contracted hours after I lost my savings when my brother died. My boss knew that and rarely gave me more hours to work, even though I asked many times. There is so much manipulating control going on and bullying has many facets from right out shouting at staff, excluding them, withholding important information, transferring them to difficult shops setting them up for failure etc.
I went through it all during bereavement and only in hindsight can I see how much this was a plan under HR in hopes I resign. But I didn’t. I even declined 4 settlement offers if I resign and never speak about my ordeal, 3 offers while still working in Pret and the 4th via Acas when I filed a Tribunal claim, but withdrew because my dad just died in the middle of preparing for the case. I collapsed and knew without legal aid I could not mentally see through a complex court case.
Not having signed my rights away, I buried my dad, went under for a couple of months, and then decided to go public.
Another Assistant Manager’s review (I leave the mistakes to keep it in their own words):
“Avoid working there – Too much pressure working there, company expects you to do all your job within the time you are schedule but it is impossible , you will end up working hours for free, no work life balance at all , they have he mistery shipper but it is all a fake thing you can not control , the standards are so high the only thing it will drive is you stress everyday. Don’t work there.“ Link
The Mystery Shopper, or as I have renamed it the “Misery” Shopper, is the driving force behind the expected happiness. When I left Pret in Dec. 2017 the reward for an individual staff member for being extra nice when the Mystery Shopper witnessed their special service is £200 tax-free. Even if the team loses the bonus, an individual Team Member can still earn up to £100 on top of their wages. With the bonus and perfect scores = £200 when the Mystery Shopper nominates them for their “outstanding” service. This is why staff are constantly smiling, chatting and giving free items in the hopes the MS is around witnessing this or even better, be the recipient of this extra kissing butt.
And customers are so impressed with the constant “happiness” of staff not realizing that staff have financial incentives, especially when giving free items away in hopes the MS is present receiving or witnessing this generosity.
Financial incentives when successful, and fear managed and micro managed when not.
A Tweet from the former Pret employee who was fired for having started a Union:
Different Mystery Shopper excerpts. Pressing Ctrl & + enlarges pictures for easier read, and Ctrl & – to decrease size again.
I was told off in the office after the Mystery Shopper comment on me having coughed as I had a slight cold:
“Team members should smile at customers and may not work when ill, as team member was coughing whilst serving me and was therefore not feeling cheerful to smile that day.”
I wish I could have told this MS that staff are not paid sick leave for the first 2 and 3 days depending on their age. So you had to decide if to stay home sick and lose income, or go to work unwell and get a telling off from the manager as I did because I coughed when I happened to serve the MS. When we were sick we were never even asked by our bosses how we were! Nada! And when we happen to serve the MS and cough, not even then, just put downs constantly as managers rely on the MS points which count towards the biggest chunk of their quarterly bonus.
Yes, the extra cash is a good reward and gives great customer service. But firstly, not all are motivated by financial incentives, especially while being stressed and pushed on a daily basis. And secondly the flip-side of this is, that when staff don’t smile and the Mystery Shopper comments on it, or customers flock to Twitter with complaints, staff find themselves in the office or other back room, away from customers and get told off. And then they are commanded to smile. I mentioned it in another blog post that the most ridiculous telling off I and my team received after losing bonus as no-one smiled, was where our non-smiling and moody boss said, “Your smile is part of your uniform. You are expected to wear a smile like you wear your uniform…”
He also said that we need to leave our problems at home etc. I was in the middle of a grievance appeal’s process due to my former line manager openly bullying me, and still coming to terms about my brother’s death. I will not get into this particular shop further, but teams are getting conditioned to this type of “emotional and mental abuse”, and yes, I call this abuse!
The press called this “emotional labour”. Quote:
“… in The New Republic, Timothy Noah observes that the sandwich shop chain Pret A Manger aggressively monitors its employees’ displays of enthusiasm. If any worker at any particular store seems insufficiently pleased to see their customers, he and all of his coworkers could suffer the consequences. Pret CEO Clive Schlee even monitors whether his employees are making enough affectionate physical contact with each other.” Link
This pressure not only from Mystery Shoppers and Managers but also from cutsomers who quickly run to Twitter and publicly at times even naming staff members, not thinking for one minute that Team Members are human beings who might be going through a hell they don’t see! I smiled, gave freebies, was complemented on my service by customers, and after my shift went for the bridge.
3 years of good service, then ONE incidence and this lady blackmails Pret with losing her business. This then is fed back to the manager who pressures the TM or even the whole team:
I decided today to respond with a .gif handing her a handkerchief. Something I was never able to do while in Pret.
I responded to some of these Tweeters on why they call out hard working staff’s names publicly, not even bothering how intense working on the front lines in Pret is:
A customer who has no boundaries to call hard-working people the C-Word and Pret even apologizing, kissing butt for profit:
etc. etc. …
YouTube further down the comments.
Fear management, manipulation, exploiting vulnerabilities and good will of staff etc.
I often ask people if they really believe or even bother to care if Pret staff can smile, show a happiness, friendliness and being polite for 6, 8, 10+ hours EVERY day in a fast paced, intensely loud and stressful work environment.
So, why do staff subject themselves to this and continue for years?
The answer is not simple but manifold:
- For one, most are foreign workers who are glad to have found a job after leaving their debt-ridden country behind. They have kids to feed in hopes they will have it better one day.
- Often people think that with time it will get better and certainly once you climb up the career ladder. At least I was under this illusion as I’ve never had problems in other companies and kept giving Pret the benefit of the doubt time and time again.
- Many staff members have the ability to just keep their heads down, play the game and unfortunately many play it on account of hardworking people.
- Other times it’s just simply assuming this is just the way it is, and they just get on with it, not realizing how damaging it becomes for their mental health in time.
I found an interesting Tweet yesterday that shows that even investigative journalists who are under life threatening situations come under this:
I used to ask like many people do why battered woman who are beaten and abused by their husbands/boyfriends stay so long in a toxic and violent relationship, often for decades before breaking out.
After what I have been through during already traumatic bereavement, I don’t ask that question anymore. I for one became extremely vulnerable, I was emotionally broken on the ground so-to-speak. I was in a fog of shock and grief, still functioning on autopilot, trying also to distract myself, exhausting myself physically to cover this excruciating pain of loss and unanswered questions. I was often literally begging my bosses and HR for help, I became ill with emailing, irrational. I started to have panic attacks, the first ever which happened in my sleep! I woke with or from a panic attack thinking I had a heart attack.
I even tried to find another job, had a trial day, but either I overdid my work or I didn’t sell myself well, or both. I was lost in where to turn, couldn’t take off unpaid leave as I had no financial means, having lost my savings after my brother died, running errands, traveling between Germany and London etc. A friend of mine understood when I gave up hope and thought I could never find another job, she said to me that it makes sense that I stayed with Pret as this is the “devil that I know” compared to the devil that I did not know in a new company.
Many battered women partly take a long time to leave their violent “partners” as this is what they come accustomed to.
How I survived my Pret ordeal having had several close calls at the bridge, I don’t know. Partly it may have been the intense anger I had because of how my brother’s death not only happened, but was dealt with, and certainly I didn’t want to put more grief on my mum. Added to that how Pret had nothing more to do then try and get rid of an inconvenient employee, whose only “crime” was that they became bereaved, while having been a very good asset to the company for several years.
Welcome to Pret that uses former homeless people for PR.
I had many conversations throughout the years with colleagues who felt stuck, scared to know if they can even find another job. And make no mistake about the low paid workers in Pret, many of them have degrees from their countries. I worked with a woman from Finland who had PhD in some technical work which I forgot. I worked with a Spanish woman who was a fully educated lawyer. One colleague from Brazil who was the secretary of the mayor of the small town he lived in. Another Brazilian lady was a bank manager in her town. Many artists, IT people, musicians, I worked with a trained pianist, I myself self-published a book from scratch by myself, financed it, organized it etc. etc.
For most, their degrees are not accepted in the UK, they would have to study some extra semesters. Others lack the language and just work to improve their English to get a start in the UK. Sure, Pret pays a little more, give a few more perks, throw parties etc. But the work they expect is like working for 2 or 3 people to get their Investors their money back plus profit! Labour is cut in most shops to maximize profit and with it managers’ bonuses. CEO Clive Schlee pockets £30 million from the JAB take-over and whatever sums of money all the top leadership get thrown at. All on the backs of low-paid workers needing to feed their kids and pay the bills.
A Barista review just from last week 30.01.2019 highlighted this:
Staff get used to this as this seems the norm and no-one is standing up. And if people do stand up, like Andrej Stopa who was fired for starting a Union, or like I did internally and now from the outside, staff remain intimidated and hopeless. Fear is a huge thing in Pret, and it’s so subtle how one can get sucked in without knowing it, until you are so paralyzed. You’re almost brainwashed by the slogans and harshness. Rarely do people have longevity in raising these unacceptable issues. The only option they find, apart from resigning or getting dismissed, is to give anonymous reviews on Indeed, Glassdoor, Twitter etc.
in 2011 someone even started a Facebook group “I Hate Pret A Manger” which is hard to find even when looking for it, as FB is also shadow banning. But I stumbled on it by coincidence just recently.
I have been contacted by current staff with the plea to not out them, and I never would. But I urge every staff member, even in other companies to join a Union. Take it from me, I had to learn the hard way, but that is why I am now so outspoken and not intimidated anymore, no matter what tricks and traps Pret comes up with. For fastfood workers I can only recommend the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) that has been instrumental in the first ever McDonald’s strikes in the UK that started in the U.S. years ago. Everybody knows how poor work conditions in McDonald’s are. But Pret has been successfully lulling in the public and controlled staff, so people often don’t believe how it is behind the facade when this is pointed out. I don’t blame them. All I ask, if something looks too good to be true, take a closer look.
And the £1000 that Clive announced on 29. May 2018, well Pret became aware of my blog on the night from 28th to 29th of May 2018. I know how Pret’s CEO reacts fast when reputation is at risk! And in October staff were still waiting and forbidden to further tweet or get a disciplinary with the risk of getting dismissed. Well, I’m delighted to have been instrumental for all staff to get an extra £1000 which they usually would have to wait 10 years to receive!
I couldn’t help but spill the beans on that Twitter feed, but most of my Tweets are of course hidden!
If you have read this long blog entry, and indeed some other of my writings, it means you care (apart from Pret that also read my blog ;-] ). But those of my readers who care, I do not take it lightly that people give of their time to subjects that are easily avoided by most people. It is always hard to have ones “bubble burst”. We want to believe a shiny facade, in this case Pret’s facade, that they have so carefully presented over many years.
All I ask is to look closer. Ask questions and give ear when you hear critique or something that surprises you, as we all were knocked over by Pret having been silent about two customer deaths and not done anything until it became public. And most importantly, don’t victim blame the staff who came and come under this harshness. It’s so easy to judge from the outside that they should just get another job! Don’t judge when people cannot find their way out or become hopeless. It needs a lot of support like a Union, friends, professional helplines to get a healthy perspective of what is acceptable behaviour towards decent and hardworking people. It goes faster than one thinks to slip under a workplace bullying environment, especially when it is systemic as it is so rampant today. Amazon for example is one of the worst, and YouTube is full of undercover reporting within Amazon warehouses and drivers.
Yes, many Pret customers also go on Twitter recommending Team Members by name who give great service. But it is even better to speak to the Team Member themselves, because I was told over the years by some of my customers if I received some goodies as they wrote to HQ or Twitter about my service. And most managers don’t even care to tell their staff when a good report is given on Twitter, especially if that Manager doesn’t like the Team Member. Reach out directly, or even in the presence of the manager. Pret does not have time by the amount of daily Tweets to pass on every message, even though they always say they do.
One card with a £20 note inside kept me going when I was in my darkest time in a shop with a bullying manager. The customer who only knew me a few days did not know what hell was raging inside me with my grief and the turmoil in Pret. If he would have gone to Twitter naming me and how he appreciated my service, I would have never gotten this message, as the manager of the store targeted me. But him giving me this card, even if without the money, it meant the world to me and I broke in the office later after closing time because I had moments I was ready to quit and go over the edge… And even though it’s very sad to me that this card kept me going like a glass of fresh water in the desert, but people do not understand how staff feel, in depression, even suicidal.
Pret Reality for many:
“Depression. Anxiety. Dread to go to work”
And this is my campaign to say that every person deserves to be treated with respect and their dignity protected.
Thank you for reading.
I wish I got some contact details from the customer who gave me this card that kept me going to let him know how many times this card reminded me that people care. I read it after closing time in the office and just sobbed.
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 starve and 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.
I tell my story for the first time verbally in below audio player interview on a podcast by The Adam Paradox, and wrote an article in the Scottish Left Review.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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