Pret Director of HR in an Interview
Pret famously recruits for behaviours, “personality rather than skills” as Wareham puts it, and these, she adds, are “relevant in every market”. Candidates are assessed against three behaviours: passion, clear talking and team working. Whether someone has ever worked a day in retail before is unimportant. The team in every shop recruits its own members, with each candidate spending ‘experience days’ in a store and the team members voting on whether they are hired. “The team own their new starters, which is very powerful,” says Wareham.
Sadly, this seems to be true, people, especially leaders are hired for their “personality” often lack people and leadership skills. One person in management position in Pret HQ has a quirky personality alright, but had no concern on how a person in bereavement is being treated. Holding an appeal’s hearing I raised, she did 2 things that added to my trauma: When I gave her the background story of the bullying I experienced during bereavement and told her that I had a nervous breakdown after my then line manager repeatedly rebuked me in front of my team. There were witnesses who testified to my distress and breakdown during investigation. Her response was to ask if my GP can verify my breakdown.
The second thing she did, at the end of the hearing she pointed at my file of paper evidence I brought in and said while laughing a little: “Do I need to read all this? Just joking.” I remember being speechless, just thinking to myself, ‘The head of a department is having a laugh.’
I became suicidal during that period and spiraled into self-sabotage in my grief and the treatment I received in Pret. (I am grabbing my life back and am determined to raise awareness on workplace bullying, bereavement at work and Mental Health First Aid at the workplace).
Managers are told to focus on “family trees” – having the right people in the right place – rather than growing sales and profitability. Wareham says she “obsesses” over how long it takes to fill vacancies, and the aim is to fill every one within three days (for which Pret has an 80% success rate). “We are constantly keeping an eye on family trees and strengthening them,” she adds. “[Sales and profitability] will come if you get the right team in place. Lack of resource is not an excuse to slow down strategy. It’s not about having bums on seats, it’s about having the right people in place who are learning, growing and happy.”
This looks good on paper, but reality is very different. People are recruited fast, especially since Pret is growing fast. Managers in shops focus very strongly on profit. They purposefully under-staff their teams, burning them out to raise the profits. They use fear management to “motivate” their teams. They have no skill in how to deal with people in tragedy. One line manager I had did not believe me that I was ill after I returned from a three months sick leave during trauma and grief. During that sick leave I had my first panic attack while sleeping. I woke up with or from a panic attack. I didn’t even know until then that you can have a panic attack in your sleep! Somehow I dragged myself to hospital A&E early in the morning not being able to reach friends, thinking I had a heart attack. I certainly know now how it feels to die, the fear of death during a panic attack is very real.
Happiness is critical to Pret’s service style, and so investment in culture is massively important. “Often companies will spend 7% of their turnover on marketing,” says Wareham. “We don’t do marketing outside the shops; we spend that on culture instead.” That means investing in parties, giving each shop a budget for staff trips and offering “a huge number of different rewards”. Go up a level on the career ladder, for example, and receive £200 of ‘shooting stars’ vouchers. These vouchers aren’t for you to spend, however, you give them to those you feel helped most in your training.
Yes, that is true, the parties are elaborate, a lot of financial incentives exist, lots of material rewards etc. But to me it often was counterproductive, because what use is a party or more bonus when your boss shouts at you on a daily basis, or if he/she doesn’t shout, excludes you from group activity or gives you mostly late shifts and overworks you…….. I used to not go to parties in my 10 years, except 2 or 3 times, simply because especially during the period of bullying during bereavement, why should I spend my precious private time with people who give me hell during work.
Work is the place we spend most of out waking hours! Why should I continue to hurt myself being with people in my spare time who mistreat me during work. No amount of money or parties are worth going through a hell like this.
I am sure Pret is taking a lot of this in what I have brought and continue to bring forward via this website. It would be good. And of course they take the credit for it. But for me I have lost everything and the 10 years I wasted on a company who sweet-talks their way out of bad behaviour is a deep regret, I have to turn into a constructive force by continuing to speak and write about my ordeal. I hopefully heal in time as this is still too painful and distressing. The emotional damage is inconceivable.
As Pret recruits for personality, staff are encouraged to be natural while serving, rather than following strict customer service rules. Once a week, every shop worldwide is visited by a mystery shopper, who scores the team on 10 areas. If the shop gets over 90%, staff receive an extra £1 an hour for the week. Wareham says that over 85% of the time, that’s the case. “It’s a bonus we absolutely want to pay,” she says. “Team members know what’s going to earn them that extra money so they focus on those things. It’s natural, not forced, service.”
So untrue! It is not “natural” to pretend to be happy and naturally happy, especially during traumatic bereavement! And it also is not true that there are no “strict customer service rules”! Pret Team Members are drilled and motivated with fear management via the weekly Mystery Shopper (I call the “Misery” Shopper). I have gotten in trouble for not smiling when the Mystery Shopper comments weren’t so positive about my service. Once I even was summoned to the office when the Mystery Shopper commented on that I coughed and didn’t smile.
The Mystery Shopper wrote in the report that sick staff should stay home as they won’t give good customer service not being able to smile. My boss at the time gave me a good telling off. In Pret, like in most low-paid jobs, Team Members are not paid when they are sick, they are only paid statutory sick-pay if they are written off sick by the GP for a consecutive 2 weeks or after 2 days of sickness IF you hand in your own sick-note and are at the mercy of whoever decides that you get sick-pay. And after some weeks the sick-pay stops altogether after decreasing week after week. I survived several times during my sick leave because friends from all over (U.S. Germany, UK) wired money over. Again, a big thank you to my friends near and far!
Sure, there is a pay called “Well-Being Days”, but once that is used, you are sliding underneath the poverty line. I had no choice many times to go to work sick and especially during my bereavement. And if you then serve the Mystery Shopper, coughing and not smiling, you get into trouble and getting penalized. It doesn’t matter how you turn it, if you call sick you lose a lot of money to survive and pay your bills. If you go to work you endanger your health and the chance to get a telling off by your boss if the Mystery Shopper gives bad feedback. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place. That I lived and worked like this for so long is unbelievable to me now, and my biggest regret in life.
So, “natural while serving”? It was natural for me to cough during illness. It was natural for me to grieve my brother’s death. It would have been so natural for Pret whose HR slogan is, “Doing the right thing naturally” to have put me into a different place within the company, until I recuperated from my trauma. But it was natural for Pret to keep me under poor management who kept suppressing me, shop after shop after shop letting me be bullied during the worst time of my life.
Pret’s success in this area hasn’t come without some backlash. In 2013, a Daily Mail article accused the chain of “emotional labour” for its focus on behaviours. “When I read that, I thought: ‘Isn’t it sad they have to find a reason why people are happy?’” Wareham recalls. “We care passionately about our people, and if you treat people well, with great respect, then they are happy. You cannot force happiness.
Ms. Wareham, this sounds like a parallel world you describe here, some Wonderland I and many colleagues have not experienced! The “emotional labour” in Pret shops is very very real and damaging! You know my story, and you as all of the senior leadership where at a loss on what to do. HR was very involved in the bullying I experienced in 2015. You know that I have the email correspondences between HR and managers. Your Head of HR had no solution for my turmoil than to place and keep me under bad management where I was continuously being bullied, excluded, held low, and ultimately one of your Development Managers from HQ was used to give me a disciplinary after my traumatic emailing. Because the Dev. Mangr. had a very similar loss of her brother, like I had with mine (although I don’t know anymore if that is true). The most brutal thing was done where she was employed to give me the disciplinary, but was not (officially) allowed to be in personal contact with me.
Here was a person who has the same loss, but wasn’t allowed to openly speak with me, but was rather used to sanction me?! How perverse is this!?!
Please pardon a strong word like this, but I was searching for a word that describes how I feel about this. I called this disrespectful, disgraceful, distasteful, mean… but all these words still didn’t describe how this feels to me. To use a person who has a personal loss against a person with a similar loss, and for them to not be “allowed” to openly get into contact to support each other in their common grief, but only use one of them to sanction the other, I can only think of the word: perverse. Bear with it, because Pret’s HR department topped everything with this! A line was crossed that I cannot get my head around.
This remind me of stories from the former East German part of a communistic regime with people being locked in their part of the country. And after the wall came down the amount of stories, including some people I’ve met later, who applied for their “Stasi” file and to their horror learned how a wife was spying on their husband or a cousin on a cousin. This is how this feels to me.
She entered into secret contact, like a double agent and I stupidly assumed this was Pret supporting me! But the confusion and frustration I kept feeling due to the way the Dev. Mngr. was so secretive and even manipulative increased my ill behaviour with the emailing. My Psychologist called her behaviour “abusive”. And for the CEO than to say to you pointing at me after I apologized to him for my emailing, introducing me to you as his “late night girl” towards the end of my employment (due to late night emailing). And then me getting dismissed while my father was in intensive care just out of a coma! Please, Ms Wareham, could you tell me what is so “natural” and “happy” about this kind of dealings with bereaved and traumatized employees?
For sure one thing is right: you want “happy” people in your company, there is no place for the bereaved, traumatized and people who may be naturally melancholic in their personality. I cannot explain to you how much torture it is to smile and PRET-END to be happy while going through the deepest, darkest hell. It is inhumane and damages people. I know, I have lost my mental health and subsequently my job, and almost lost my life.
Could you define “happiness” for me, please?
At Pret’s support centre in Victoria, London, the people team is the largest – bigger than finance, food, IT or property. It’s also the area the company invests the most in, says Wareham. “The people team here are the glue that holds the place together,” she says. The biggest topic in senior management meetings is how people are feeling in the shops, she adds, “which means I always have the biggest to-do list”.
This is adding salt to the wound. That the People Team is bigger than another department always bothered me. First of all I wouldn’t be proud that the HR department or the “People Team” are larger than the food or IT team. They are larger, not because they care about people’s well-being, they are larger because of the amount of grievances that are raised against leaders and people in general. The CEO once wrote that the People Team are now taking care of around twenty thousand employees. But this is not good organization. HR should be taking care of their Leaders to take care of their Teams! If your Leaders in shops were equipped, trained, skilled in people management and would less be pushed for targets, you would need to be proud that you have such a “small” HR department, as your Leaders in the shop would be able to take good care of their teams.
How do people “feel in their shops”? The amount of complaints I as a Team Leader had from my teams about the bad treatment from managers is a book in itself. My experience with the People Team is another. And ultimately, to be mistreated during bereavement to the point of becoming suicidal, you bet you have a big to-do list!
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 two articles in the Scottish Left Review: 1. “Late Night Girl’s” Story with Pret and 2. Pushing Back Against Pret.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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