Legal opinion: TV show The Apprentice puts discrimination in a spin

What can we learn from Sir Alan Sugar’s hellish job interviews on TV’s The Apprentice?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the latest series of The Apprentice has transfixed viewers. Whether it’s Tre’s direct approach to resolving workplace problems (“You are nothing to me…”) or Katie’s unusual method of providing peer group feedback, we can’t seem to get enough of it.

But amid the theatre of the boardroom sacking sessions, are there any HR or employment law lessons we can take from this insight into the hiring and firing mentality of a high-profile employer?

Take Sir Alan Sugar’s comments in an early episode to a young female participant. He was skating on thin ice when he expressed his doubts that this individual was too young for the role. Have Sugar and the programme makers not heard of the Age Regulations?

I breathed a slight sigh of relief when, in the final analysis, the reason for this contestant’s ejection was her poor performance in the task, Sugar expressly ruling age out as a relevant consideration.

Hardcore interviews

Which brings us to episode 11, in which Sugar was helped by three business associates to whittle down the five remaining apprentices to the two finalists. The interviews themselves were pretty hardcore by most standards, candidates variously being described as boring, “grasshopper-minded” and ruthless.

However, it is the treatment of Kristina and Katie that have attracted the most attention.

When reminded that the job in Sugar’s company would be London-based, both women were quizzed about how they would cope with relocation to London in light of family commitments (from Yorkshire and Devon, respectively). Katie admitted in the concluding session before Sugar and his panel that she could not guarantee a smooth move from Devon to London without first checking with her parents.

Pressed to make a decision, Katie decided to withdraw and, in effect, fired herself, leaving Kristina and Simon to fight over the spoils.

Sexist or justified?

Was this focus on the practicalities of working arrangements for the women discriminatory, when similar points were not pressed with the male competitors? Or did it reveal an ignorance of the obligation to take seriously requests for flexible working? Are these fair points to make in the circumstances?

We need to accept that The Apprentice is not real life it is deliberately melodramatic and offers ‘fly on the wall’ information which would never be available in a true hiring and firing context. That is what makes it such great TV.

While I accept that some of the questioning is not out of the modern textbook – which is a diplomatic way of saying, don’t copy it in the workplace – I don’t buy into the discrimination argument.

All contestants were grilled, irrespective of personal characteristics, and it is arguably only because Kristina and Katie were effectively the frontrunners that they came under such close scrutiny.

I don’t think that Katie was forced out because of her relocation issue she backed out after being pressured about whether she genuinely wanted the job or was simply interested in the publicity of winning. That is the context in which she chose to step down and we should respect her for that.

I would put a more positive spin on the debate. The programme has portrayed very graphically the strength and skills of women and ethnic minority candidates.

In this regard, The Apprentice could be said to have made a real contribution to improving opportunities for all in the workplace.

Ashley Norman is employment law partner and head of diversity, Pinsent Masons

Discrimination in recruitment

  • Anti-discrimination laws apply as much to the recruitment process as they do to employment itself.
  • Aside from compensation for loss of earnings, tribunals can award damages for injury to feelings.
  • Usually, evidence of direct discrimination will be hard to come by but tribunals will draw inferences from the surrounding circumstances.
  • Claimants may rely on statistical evidence of the profile of successful (and unsuccessful) job applicants and can use statutory questionnaires to obtain information about the employer’s record on diversity.

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