According to reports in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, David Cameron is set to introduce laws that will give companies the power to sack the slackers. Part of the new ’employers’ charter will allow companies to sack workers during the first two years of their employment without the threat of being taken to a tribunal for unfair dismissal.
In the words of Max Bygraves, let me tell you a story. One that is deeply humiliating and embarrassing and one, that until now, very few people are aware of. Though what happened was undoubtedly not
my fault, the shame and mortification stay with me to this day.
In 2006 I worked as the PA to the rather idiosyncratic headmistress of an independent girls’ catholic boarding school in Oxford. It was, without a shadow of a doubt one of the most interesting positions I’ve ever held. Originally I was drafted in to help after her original PA needed to go on a period of extended leave. We very quickly built up an excellent rapport; as the professional mother of a young child, for whom I was considering private education, together with my city experience, I was a perfect candidate for the position, the fact that I was catholic and had been privately educated myself, were added bonuses. I suggested and implemented many ways in which the admin process could be streamlined and speeded up and how communication with parents could be vastly improved as well as the marketing. The headmistress was wedded to tradition, everything had to be put on paper in triplicate and certainly in 2007, she had absolutely no idea how to switch on a computer.
However she enjoyed my dynamism and enthusiasm and very swiftly offered me the position on a full-time basis given the impending retirement of her previous PA. The job paid significantly less than I had
previously commanded, the hours were long, no allowances were made for the fact that I had a 2-year-old and on the occasions nursery were unable to take her, it was suggested that I brought her in to
work for one of the 19 year-old boarding assistants to look after in order that I wouldn’t miss a day’s work. In all the time that I worked there, the only absenteeism was a half day for an unavoidable hospital appointment. I enjoyed the work and developed excellent relationships with pupils, parents and staff, whilst accepting that the headmistress herself, like many bosses, required delicate handling. Various rumours and stories abounded about her legendary temper, the demands put upon staff which were above and beyond the call of duty and her capriciousness, but I remained fiercely loyal. She was, I felt, misunderstood, after all she had no immediate family and lived on the school premises, the school
was literally her life.
Just before Christmas of that year, she called me into her office whereupon I was subjected to an incredible verbal tirade. I had recently lost a substantial amount of weight, partly I suspect due to the fact that I was so busy at work, very often, because the head didn’t eat lunch, she expected me not to either and simply to work through lunchtime. If I ate a sandwich at my desk, she would sit and watch, tutting impatiently waiting for me to finish. According to the head, I had “anorexia and was setting a bad example to the gels” (I was 5 foot 5 and 8 stone 10, so hardly anorexic by any definition) and furthermore “colleagues had been complaining that I was flirting with the malestaff”. Quite how I was supposed to have found to find time to flirt with anyone, given that I was confined to my office the entire working day was beyond me, and not to put too fine a point on it, the few male members of staff who did work there consisted of married men with an average age of 55. As someone who had just turned 30, with a young child to consider and who was experiencing a forthcoming divorce, pursuing older married men had absolutely no interest to me. In fact, at that point, no romantic relationships held any interest, I was more interested in surviving the next few years financially, emotionally and spiritually intact.
I spoke to my immediate colleagues in the office to ask if they had any concerns, to which they responded only that I seemed to have been working incredibly hard recently, they were worried that I was needing to take work home with me to finish and they were adamant that I shouldn’t let myself be “taken advantage of”. I had already put my foot down, in that the head’s previous PA had done her personal shopping for her, she would regularly do a Tesco shop on behalf on the head, not having to deal with a young family, and I was very clear that though I would be keen to help on occasion, regular food shopping for the head was above and beyond the call of duty. She did after all have a car of her own but was very reticent about driving, requiring a groundsman to drive her when she needed to go off-site. As for the “flirting” issue, my colleagues dissolved into peals of laughter, seeing at first sight how ludicrous that particular suggestion was. We thought that perhaps she’d had a mad moment. My receptionist, a lady in her 50s was particularly sympathetic. the head frequently managed to reduce her into a gibbering wreck, when she was in one of “those moods”. Almost all the staff had suffered from a bizarre tirade at some time or another, and finally it was my turn, it would blow over.
And indeed things seemed to. My last day at work was on Christmas Eve, and I gave the head a gift of a Monty Python film boxset, as on frequent occasions she said how much she had enjoyed their films and how she really ought to have them on video. I came back to work on the 2nd January, to find a thank you card on my desk for the “thoughtful gift”. Strangely enough I didn’t see the head all that day and presumed that she was taking an extra day’s break, which was unusual for such a workaholic. On coming into work the next day, I discovered that the IT network seemed to be down, I couldn’t access any of my files. I called the Bursar’s office, who said that it was being worked on. Then at 10.0o am, the assistant bursar came into the office and said that the Head wanted to see me. Nothing unusual
there, she often did at that time, so as per usual, I grabbed my pad and my cup of tea and made my way over. The assistant bursar seemed to be following me, which was peculiar and she said “would you normally take your tea in to see the head?”, to which I replied, “yes why?” and she said “well you’d better leave it behind”. I got into the office, whereupon I was told that my services were no longer required and I needed to leave the premises immediately. As a gesture of good will, I was handed a cheque for a month’s salary, “without obligation”. When I asked why, what were the reasons, what had I done, this was utterly illegal, I’d had no formal verbal or written warnings, was there a problem with the quality of my work, what could be done to resolve matters, I was simply told “your services are no longer required”. The head, her face going redder and redder, and unable to make eye contact, told me that she couldn’t go into any detail, she was very regretful, I had been the best assistant that she had ever had, my skills were certainly in no doubt, nor was my commitment, but that my services were no longer needed. No discussion as to why, what I might have done, or how I could rectify the situation, what it was that she felt was no longer working. I was marched to my car and told to leave the premises, asap, like a common criminal.
I was devastated and later on that day, when I had recovered from my distress, I rang some of my admin
colleagues, who were equally baffled, distressed and upset. They had absolutely no idea what was behind it either. I also rang the assistant bursar for clarification and begged to know what on earth the problem was, my quality of work was excellent, my references were excellent, I’d been working there 11 months and just couldn’t work out for the life of me, what I had done wrong. The assistant bursar, whilst not in the presence of the head, confided that she felt extremely sorry for me, she was unable to give me any particular reason, she assured me I’d have an excellent references, she was very very sorry, there was nothing she could do, other than to advise me to put it behind me and I would undoubtedly get a much better job. Which indeed I did.
At the time, I was however, incredibly hurt, angry and distressed, that 11 months of service counted for nothing, my skills weren’t in question, my professionalism wasn’t in question, other than some weight loss, and yet I could be summarily sacked without any just cause and with no protocols or disciplinary procedure. I contacted CAB who confirmed that the head had broken every single employment law in the book and should I go to tribunal then I would undoubtedly win hands down. However, given that I only had 11 months of service and not 12, then there was absolutely nothing that could be done. The head had taken advantage of a loophole. I don’t know what was worse, to see my job advertised in the Oxford Times, or when I bumped into members of staff in town over the course of the next few years. They had come back and asked where I was. “She decided that she didn’t want to work here any more and walked out after Christmas” they were told. Both staff and parents were shocked and disappointed, and I was furious that my professional reputation had been doubly compromised. A lot of the staff expressed how much they missed me, perhaps one of the issues had been that they would often come into the office to sound off, I would listen impartially, soak it up and yet would never divulge any staffroom gossip to the head. Very often, people would just need to come and have a vent, a cup of tea and a biscuit and then go on their way. Confidentiality is just that.
As David Cameron was my constituency MP, I went to see him about this matter, I felt it needed to be highlighted that someone could be summarily dismissed without any recourse to the law or internal disciplinary procedures, due to personal whim. The first thing he did was to enquire about my background. When I told him about my two previous employers, his response was “you worked for XXXX, you’ll get another job, no problem, people like you aren’t my concern”. I guess that was a pragmatic enough response and to a certain extent he was right. He then talked about the importance of
flexibility of employers in terms of childcare and how he was able to take his daughter to work. “Lucky you” I thought. Finally he gave me a lecture on how important probation periods are, how they work both ways and give a chance both for the employer and the employee to see that the arrangement was working. The point was, this was outside of my probationary period. And even if it had still been inside the probationary period, there should still have been protocols to be followed. Not just “I’ve decided that you’re too thin and you won’t pass on staff gossip so you have to go”.David Cameron, did however, concede that what had happened was terribly unfair, even if one accepts that there are two sides to every story, which there undoubtedly are, just to sack a member of staff with a young child, with no warning for no apparent reason, should not be able to happen in this day and age. He said he would look into relevant legislation and fire off a letter to the head for me. And that was that.
I didn’t want the pay award of a tribunal, what was more important was justice. For a panel to look and this and rule that it was unfair, which it undoubtedly was. I still get upset when I think about it today, particularly given that the head of this school prided herself on her Catholic and Christian compassion. I still experience the humiliation of being marched off premises and the disorientation and hurt of losing my employment lifeline. I was treated like an eighteenth centurymillworker, who had no worth and no value. I still speculate as to what was behind it now. My only consolation is that since this occurred, due to incredibly high staff turnover, both in terms of office staff (my former colleagues left) and teaching staff, a head of HR has been appointed, at the request of the governors. Some staff saw what had happened to me and decided that they wished to work in an altogether more pleasant environment. My hope is that this situation will be prevented from ever occurring again.
I am disappointed that David Cameron, having seen first hand how an employer may circumvent existing legislation by the period of a a few weeks and behave in a thoroughly reprehensible fashion, has seen fit to extend this further and open up the possibility of more employee exploitation. Losing one’s job is devastating on every single level. What happened to me was absolutely inexcusable. Up until this point, I have been a relatively impartial defender of the coalition. I am now wondering whether or not there is any section of society that they won’t manage to alienate. How a licence to exploit vulnerable employees adds up to economic sense is beyond me. It certainly won’t engender any sense of loyalty and will create a suspicious, defensive workforce. It is not a policy of decency, common-sense and compassion. How can you expect to get people off welfare, if you are going to force them into a job whereby they can be exploited, threatened and sacked on a whim by unscrupulous employers? This is a measure that will have the greatest impact upon our most vulnerable workers.
David Cameron, can we dismiss you without reason before you’ve completed 2 years service?