The press have relished the case brought by former Apprentice winner Stella English against the game show’s host Lord Sugar’s AMS-Holdings Group. Lord Sugar has hailed his victory as a triumph against the “claims culture”. The Judge stated that “this was a claim that should never have been brought”. So if her claim was so poor, what made her think she could win? We speculate as follows.
1. She may have thought she could establish that the job she was offered after “The Apprentice” involved being mentored by Lord Sugar under an apprentice arrangement, which didn’t happen in practice.
However, the proposed arrangements were quite different and were spelled out at the time. Ms English received the “Talk of Doom” from an executive producer before being selected as the winner. The Talk of Doom involved explaining to Ms English that she might win a 12 month temporary contract of employment with one of Lord Sugar’s companies, with no obligation to extend that temporary contract. During the talk, Ms English was advised that the winner would not necessarily work alongside Lord Sugar and may have to work under a different line manager. Her employment contract echoed this arrangement. As such, there was no basis to have made this initial assumption.
2. She may have thought that the Tribunal would accept that she could rely upon events which happened during a temporary placement at Viglin, an IT company owned by the AMS-Holding group. She also assumed that the Tribunal would believe her about what had happened.
Ms English alleged that on day one, the CEO said to her that “the cameras have stopped rolling now” and, looking at her with contempt said: “welcome to the real world, there is no job”. Ms English alleged that this was the start of a series of breaches of the implied duty of trust and confidence.
Ms English also complained that her e-mail to the CEO (in which she impliedly criticised others for not having an issue regarding outstanding fees owed to the company) was forwarded to other senior managers to involve them in the concerns raised. Ms English apparently thought that this was meant as a reprimand for having sent the e-mail, which she thought was a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence.
The problem with pursuing all these complaints is that even if they did amount to breaches of trust and confidence, they happened before she signed up to a new contract with Viglin after winning The Apprentice. The Tribunal therefore assumed that she has affirmed her contract of employment and had “forgiven” these acts, (which the Tribunal didn’t accept happened in the way she described in any event).
3. She may have thought that the Tribunal would accept her assertions about other alleged breaches of the implied duty of trust and confidence after winning The Apprentice.
4. She may have thought that the Tribunal would accept her assertions about having no real work to do whilst on secondment to a company called YouView. The offer of secondment was made after she resigned from Viglin. Ms English then suggested that she had no substantive work to do during this secondment, but according to the Tribunal, she contradicted this assertion under cross-examination.
5. She may have thought that the Tribunal would object to the method by which Lord Sugar told her that her contract would not be renewed. Ms English made two allegations about what Lord Sugar said with regard to this. On one version he said: “You said you couldn’t work for Viglen anymore so I flipped you over here. I did it for the BBC and I did it for the integrity of the show, well a bit of my own PR as well and yours too, but the fact is I don’t give a shit I don’t give a shit. You were happy enough to walk out on me in June, weren’t you? Well, now we are done”. As it happens, the Tribunal did not believe her version of events and assumed that Lord Sugar was referring to potential media interest when he made these remarks.
So, what lessons should we learn from this? Lord Sugar demands that companies stand up to such claims, but is it always as easy to do so? This case was extremely peculiar because of its unusual circumstances. Companies are still best advised to conduct a careful assessment the merits of any such claim early and review their options accordingly.