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Editor’s Comment: Sugar ... I’m fired!

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6th May 2005
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BBC Two’s reality TV hit, ‘The Apprentice’ in which fourteen hopefuls fought to become the six-figure protégé of AMSTRAD chief Sir Alan Sugar concluded with the tycoon speaking the immortal words ‘You’re hired’ to Tim Campbell, a 27-year-old transport manager; Editor’s Comment looks at what can be learnt from selection the Sugar way.

Spanning 12 weeks, the gruelling situational style interview was both long and very public but for the lucky winner the reward was probably worth it – a £100,000 starting salary with the opportunity to be nursed, counselled and trained by business success Sir Alan Sugar.

Over the course of the show the candidates were set tasks in which they would compete team on team for a place in the next round.

The losers faced giving up their place as Sugar systematically whittled the contestants down by firing a candidate in each episode the winning made sweeter by an enviable treat each week for those on the victorious side, fitting of the generosity of a multi-millionaire.

Throughout the series, the candidates lived together in a luxury eight bedroom mansion on the banks of the Thames and experienced a taste of the high life they aspired to.

Tasks ranged from selling art, trading flowers, designing a child’s toy and marketing products on the shopping channel.

These challenges gave a unique insight into contestants’ ability to be calm under pressure, or more often then not expose their lack of cool and business acumen.

I asked trade body the Recruitment Employment Confederation (REC) whether anything could be learnt from hiring and firing the Sugar way.

Tom Hadley, Director of External Relations said:

“The show is a good example of what can happen if you haven’t got a specific criteria of what you’re looking for. There does seem to be a trend for companies to put candidates in situations where you can then try to dig beneath the surface to find out what makes a person tick. There is also the group dynamic issue – sometimes it is useful to see what role a person plays in a group.

“It was also interesting to see how over time perceptions can change. The lesson here is not to take things at face value, you’ve got to dig deeper than first impressions.”

I’d certainly agree that at first mouthy sales executive Saira Khan wouldn’t seem the ideal catch but over-time her hunger for sales, team spirit and ability to turn her hand to almost anything came over – resulting in her being left as the only women standing and the runner up to winner Tim Campbell.

But warn consultants, Mercer Delta winning based on the acute manipulation of power and politics such as that played in the Apprentice might not always produce the best person for the job.

They say that the best leaders are often those people who are willing to speak the truth about an organisation.

“Our message to Alan Sugar and to CEOs across the UK would be not to shoot the messenger - a preparedness to engage in constructive conflict in pursuit of the right decision is a key character trait of a strong leader."

One of the issues that came across in the programme was what type of person an ‘apprentice’ would ideally be, James the 34 year old ex investment banker was ousted by Sugar and assistants who dubbed him as essentially too old and too successful for the job.

According to the dictionary the definition of an apprentice is ‘one who is learning a craft and is bound to an employer by legal agreement.’

I see no mention of age or proven talent as a precursor to suitability but still James despite statistically being one of the best, he was on the winning side most of the time was booted out of the show.

But do we ever stop learning; wouldn’t a better approach be to select those candidates who show an aptitude for it, rather than making an assumption based on age?

In a recent debate we’ve been having on HRZone, member Penny Brown made exactly this point: “Focusing selection criteria on an individual's ability to learn as well as their current skill set will mean that organisations can confidently invest in developing those new employees and see a return on that investment.“

It seems that on the flip side, Sugar’s ‘firing’ methods have also come in for criticism from the HR field.

A recent survey by employment law specialists ELAS of small and medium sized businesses revealed that over 80% of bosses would never sack an employee on the spot.

And even those prepared to emulate Sir Alan said their staff would have to do something extremely serious to warrant being told: “You’re fired.”

According to experts at ELAS, managers are right to think twice before dishing out the P45s at will.

“It might look good on TV but a lot has changed since Sir Alan’s day,” said senior employment lawyer John Peel.

“Any company should think long and hard before showing someone the door.

“Already, the law makes it hard for companies to sack workers at the drop of a hat and managers need to be aware of today’s employment laws before dealing with any type of staff problems."

In reality, bosses are much more aware of the threat of an unfair dismissal claim, according to the survey 82% would carry out a full investigation before showing a member of staff the door.

“A hasty move like Sir Alan’s, while it sounds exciting, could prove very costly in the long run,” Peel added.

According to ELAS the key problems are still the bread-and-butter issues including:

  • absenteeism
  • staff sickness
  • poor timekeeping

Only 3% admitted to being most concerned by issues of discrimination or harassment.

Fair points aside, reality TV has its own rules and firing on the spot after all makes for better ratings then sitting down to pour over the finer points of best practice sacking.

What ever you think of Sugar’s selection style what is certain is that most of us couldn’t afford either the time or money to lavish on such a process.

Seeking out unproven talent, such as lucky winner Tim’s will always have the element of high-risk about it but taking the time to dig deeper into candidates core abilities through situational tasks surely offers employers the opportunity to test the water and for that I suppose Sugar must be in part applauded if not as sister site Business Management Zone’s Editor, Tom Blass said hounded for pushing rookie wage inflation through the roof!

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By patward
06th May 2005 10:23

I heard on the radio last night that Sir Digby Jones, head of the CBI, said that most members of the employers' body did not want to be associated with the programme. Apparently they said that it had nothing to do with modern business and puts it in a bad light - have they no sense of fun? Do they not realize this was a reality TV show? I mean sure there was the 'blood-thirsty' aggressive nature about it but in actual fact I do believe this is part and parcel of the world of work - for businesses to succeed there needs to be an element of dog-eat-dog competition - I'd like to hear what others think

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By Nkellingley
06th May 2005 10:44

I think it's a good thing that most members of the CBI wouldn't want to be assosciated with the program.

In a nutshell, it showed 12 David Brent-alikes behaving in a backstabbing, frenzied manner in order to impress a man who treated them all with a level of contempt.

It's tragic that any of them got the job in the end, if that's the best British business has to offer then sadly we're probably all doomed.

However I think the reaction of the CBI shows that most businesses don't think like that and don't support the aspects of business practice demonstrate. Phew!

As for dog eat dog practices - I'd suggest that successful businesses would want to consume other businesses not have their best staff devour each other.

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Sandra Beale, HR consultant
By sbeale
10th May 2005 11:14

I thought the Apprentice was a highly watchable programme and for the most part I agreed with Alan Sugar's decisions.

The business world is a dog eat dog environment and that is, I am sure, why Alan Sugar has become so successful - really it's the survival of the fittest. Within the commercial world some hard decisions need to be taken and whether it's procedures or people that are ousted then sobeit, although of course the dismissal of people needs to be done fairly in line with the legislation.

I have heard that there are plans to do another series and we shall have to see whether that lives up to this first innovative one. Wednesday nights shall certainly be lacking from now on.

Sandra Beale

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By claire.slater
11th May 2005 12:52

Whilst being a reality TV show, I feel the show was successful in helping to promote business issues and make some rather dry business subjects more appealing and interesting to a wider audience. Regarding the criticism of Sir Alan's firing methods - he was not firing employees, it was clear that he was firing job applicants who were not in his employment! So the employment law argument is completely unfounded and irrelevant. A very good piece of programming!

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By TomCarroll
24th Nov 2005 14:31

Didn't watch a single second of a single episode and it sounds like I didn't miss much.

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