Lord Sugar vs Stella English – a poor example of employee engagement?

sugarWhatever the outcome of the Sugar vs English tribunal (which at the time of writing will be decided in the next few weeks) and the potential rights and wrongs of the matter on each side, it seems pretty clear to me that Stella English was not a great example of an employee fully engaged in what she was employed to do at Lord Sugar’s empire.

When it comes to tribunals, it’s well known that they generally start with a misunderstanding which is not dealt with; in English’s case her assertion that she was an “overpaid lackey”, which meant her role had no meaning for her.  In Lord Sugar’s case, he seems to have adopted a “what did you expect?” sort of approach along with the frustration that he has put a lot of investment into an employee who doesn’t appear to be showing any gratitude whatsoever.  Both have ended up embroiled in a media circus where English is suing him for constructive dismissal.

Famously aggressive management style aside (that’s a blog for another day), could Lord Sugar have avoided all of this public confrontation if he had adopted some key principles of employee engagement?

  1. Employees need to know that organisations are committed to the long term. Call it vision, mission, story board, whatever you like but make it clear where the organisation has come from and where it’s going. This is usually achieved through strong, open and inspirational leadership.
  2. Managers need to ensure that they engage their teams as individuals with meaningful work. Stella English had an issue with this; she claims her job was just there to fulfil the The Apprentice contract and was not meaningful at all.  The scope for her to make an impact on the organisation was in her view very limited. Her manager she suggests says she was “a nice girl, but didn’t do a lot”.  She obviously did not feel the organisation valued her contribution. Her efforts in her view were worthless. Her manager did not command her respect, she thought he was less qualified and experienced than she was.
  3. In organisations where employees have a voice to challenge, reinforce and change management views, it is proven that employee commitment is higher and consequently their performance is greater.  Leaders who take the time to hear their colleagues’ views understand them better, can address worries as they happen and manage their expectations, motivations and ambitions.  My assertion here is that English did not feel she had a voice that was going to be heard and ultimately her unmet need resorted to a public fight.
  4. Finally, employees see through the company values written on the wall if they are not absolutely lived by leaders.  The lesson is that to truly lead, you must model behaviour you expect of your employees. If you aren’t committed and positive about your contribution to the organisation, why should your employees bother? Organisational integrity is absolutely key here – what we say and what we do should not have a big gap between them. Obvious really. A quote I heard recently on this sums it up, “we want to see values lived not laminated”! See (Beverley Stone).

All in all Stella English has nothing to lose by suing Lord Sugar but the case raises some interesting questions about how Lord Sugar’s empire is organised and what success looks like.

What do you think about the case? Do you have any sympathy for Lord Sugar?

For more reading on this subject, see David MacLeod and Nita Clarke’s research, Engage for Success, for more information on employee engagement and the enablers of engagement.

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