When Hazel Settas took a job as housekeeper to a wealthy Tory MP, she evidently wasn’t ready for what she found. Her instructions for running the former minister Jonathan Djanogly’s £7m home read more like the backstage rider of a particularly demanding pop diva than something out of Mrs Beeton.
Rules on the management of avocados alone ran to 100 words, with a strict system of rotation between bowl and fridge to maintain ripeness (“check to see if there are eight soft avocados in the fridge … if not add up the missing number of soft avocados and put this number of hard avocados into the fruit bowl”). Phone calls were to be answered within four rings, and there were instructions on carrying items correctly from the coffee table to the sink. Settas, who lasted only a fortnight in the job, said she had to work until 10 or 11 at night to complete her tasks and that the MP’s wife, Rebecca Silk, allegedly shouted at her to “hurry up”; the housekeeper cried, she says, in her room at night.
“I was shocked she would behave like that when her husband was an MP,” Settas told the Sunday Mirror, after successfully pursuing Silk through the courts for £886 in wages that she argued she was owed. But, given how some of Djanogly’s colleagues have been behaving lately, perhaps it won’t have come as much of a shock to readers. A second, unnamed housekeeper, who also took legal action after working for the Djanogly-Silk household, was awarded £3,148 in unauthorised wage deductions, overtime and annual leave, with the judge concluding that Silk had “sought to deprive” her of important working rights. By grim coincidence, all this hit the headlines just as the House of Lords was due to debate the fate of employment laws post-Brexit – amid concerns that a raft of protections derived from the EU could be swept away at the stroke of a ministerial pen – and Downing Street was grappling with a series of workplace bullying allegations against deputy prime minister Dominic Raab (which he denies).
Working for the rich is famously never easy, and the same can be true of cabinet ministers under pressure. What’s fascinating about both these cases is that they fall into a grey area of workplace behaviour that’s becoming more and more crucial to define. Withholding pay is obviously against the law; nothing grey about that. But being strangely controlling about avocados isn’t illegal. The ministerial code does specifically outlaw bullying at work, defined by the civil service as intimidating or insulting behaviour. But it’s still ultimately a subjective judgment as to whether leaving junior officials in floods of tears, as Raab is said to have done, is a sacking offence or still just within the boundaries of what one ally tactfully calls behaving “like a CEO”. When does being the kind of scary boss many of us have occasionally encountered tip over into being the kind of boss nobody should have to tolerate? Or to put it another way: how far should anyone, in any walk of life, be allowed to behave like a jerk?
On the one hand sits a “never did me any harm” brigade, who think it’s feeble to complain about the sort of ritual hazing that happened all the time when they were young. On the other are people who recognise that that was 30 years ago, and that Tory MPs who have spent a decade or more in parliament – as arcane a workplace, in its way, as the mansions of the super-rich – may have lost touch with what they fondly imagine the outside working world to be like. Mark Price, another former Tory minister and the former managing director of Waitrose, who is now running the digital career development platform WorkL, warned at the weekend that his firm’s research suggests 33% of British workers are considering leaving their jobs. That’s unusual, on the brink of a recession, but is a marker of changing times, where workers can – if only temporarily – afford to be more picky, with more vacancies lying open than a shrunken post-Brexit workforce can currently fill. Keeping people happy, Price told the Sunday Times, is now paramount for employers; the biggest driver of job satisfaction is a good relationship with your manager, yet on average British bosses dish out far more criticism than praise. Maybe the Ministry of Justice should get him in for some pointers.
Or better still – and ideally before ministers run the red pen over all those hard-won employment rights – maybe this administration could accept that the world has moved on since the 1990s, and that whatever the 2023 definition of being “like a CEO” involves, it isn’t making people cry.