Find me an employment lawyer in the land who has not watched an episode of The Apprentice from behind the sofa, moaning in frustration that: “they wouldn’t get away with this in real life”. And it’s true. The television programme is jam-packed with procedural faux-pas, discriminatory comments and of course, Britain’s most belligerent boss himself, Lord Alan Sugar. For anyone in any doubt, pointing an aggressive finger at a hapless employee and declaring “You’re fired” is not an acceptable management style, despite the sometimes overwhelming temptation.
However, that The Apprentice is a television programme does not necessarily mean that its contestants are fair game. Employment law, bah! Other television programmes have already faced battles in the Employment Tribunal, notably Britain’s Got Talent and Simon Cowell, who faced a claim from a disabled lady who had failed to make it past the first round. She claimed that the way in which her audition was broadcast amounted to harassment and that the show had failed to make reasonable adjustments. The claim failed on the grounds that she was not applying for employment. Although contestants may have been offered contracts with Simon Cowell’s company at the end of the show, that was not its purpose, and there was no obligation on the company to do so. As such, the Employment Tribunal had no jurisdiction over her claim.
However, for the winner of The Apprentice, the incentive is the chance to be Lord Sugar’s “Apprentice” in a role earning £100,000 a year. Which is a real job. Or is it? This is one of the questions raised by The Apprentice 2010 winner Stella English whose claim for constructive dismissal is being heard in the East London Employment Tribunal this week.
Part of her claim is that the very role she was offered as her winner’s prize was a sham. The role, Miss English alleges, had previously been carried out by someone on just £35,000 a year – meaning Miss English was given an astonishing pay hike of £65,000 to take it on. She claims that no specific duties were allocated to her and that she was basically provided with a desk and a phone and “that was it”. She has reportedly told the Tribunal that she felt “ostracised” and like an “overpaid lackey”, who only saw Lord Sugar five times in her 13 months with his companies. “The career enhancing opportunities that The Apprentice position had been sold as simply failed to materialise” she is reported as saying, presumably at a safe distance from Lord Sugar himself. [Editor’s note: Pardon me? “Career-enhancing opportunities”? I thought it was about the chance to kick and elbow your way unattractively to the top of your little pile of people largely unemployable by normal means and then to make some money from Lord Sugar’s job and a lot more from opening provincial supermarkets and Christmas pantos. Not a fan, actually.]
Seemingly, it all came to a head in September 2011 when Lord Sugar told her that he would not be renewing her contract. It is reported that Miss English had moved to YouView (another of Lord Sugar’s companies) in June 2011 as a result of her problems at the first. Apparently Lord Sugar made clear to Miss English that he had only offered her the second role to avoid adverse publicity for The Apprentice but that personally he “didn’t give a s***”. Touching. Maybe even true. Maybe not.
Some of the specifics of the claim remain unclear. In particular, if she was actually dismissed (i.e. “I am not renewing your contract”), why is Miss English claiming constructive dismissal? Constructive dismissal is a statutory beast which allows an employee, who has not been expressly dismissed, to terminate his employment contract in circumstances where entitled to do so by the employer’s conduct. Whether or not the employer’s conduct was bad enough is something which can only be decided by the Employment Tribunal, which makes it a slightly uncertain claim to bring. However, while failing to give Miss English proper duties or to listen to her concerns and swearing at her may in theory be sufficient grounds for a constructive dismissal claim, the point is she could not resign if she had already been dismissed. Equally, Lord Sugar has been making his own case with some vigour – that Ms English’s claim is an overt attempt to extract money from him, that in his employment he found her to be “untrusting and suspicious” and “a serial liar”, and (most cuttingly of all) that her employment ended because “the reality of work, rather than the glamour of showbusiness, was beginning to bite with her …. Her time in the limelight as beginning to fade”. Which points to a different factual picture – that in common with hundreds of thousands of employees in the UK and countless millions worldwide, Ms English found her job boring and unfulfilling and her boss something of a pain, but that she was not smart enough to put up with being paid three times the going rate for it while she found something better.
The answers to these questions will, hopefully, all come out in the wash as the Tribunal claim progresses. But for now, certainly an interesting one to keep an eye on. Be warned, TV producers, the “Magic of Television” is not a defence to an Employment Tribunal claim, any more than not liking your job much is grounds for bringing one.