Friday, 21 March 2014

Slain by Mr Brutus (for daring to ask about a pension)!

It's been a harrowing few weeks. First I was jubilant at landing a Property Manager job in charge of 121 properties in Brighton and Hove on two sites (one a former Victorian seafront hotel), office to myself, entirely in charge of my own workload, minimal red tape, ok starting salary and commission.
My new employer? KF Properties, owned by Keith Freedman, devisor of Brutus jeans and Trimfit shirts in the days when teenagers were newly invented and needed something to wear in-between Teddy Boy and New Romantic, who subsequently decided to go into property and now owns properties in a number of locations including Germany - strapline - 'accommodating the world'.
Then, just as I was getting my teeth into the role and getting to know my new residents and contractors, dismissal, purely because I dared to ask if KF Properties provided a pension (would this even have happened if I were a man?). On this basis, I was told that I 'obviously wasn't going to be staying if I wasn't happy and should therefore leave as my line manager Jitendra Patel ('JP') did not want to have to keep recruiting new property managers'. This made no sense to me as what did he imagine he would have to do all over again by dismissing me? And I was later informed he had already gone through four in two years, so surely it must have occurred to him that there might be a long-term staff retention issue which needed addressing.

But needing the job I was still happy to sign the contract and commit to staying for the foreseeable future (no employee can surely promise to stay beyond the foreseeable future), not least for the sake of my CV and not wishing to look like a job hopper. As for how long I stayed after that, well that was surely up to my new employer as much as myself, commitment being a two-way street.

Maybe I should have spotted the warning signs. It was a strange interview. I had been told in two separate emails to wait in my car outside the premises and Mr Patel would come and summon me when he was ready. I duly replied with details of what car I would be waiting in and arrived ten minutes before my interview. I waited, and waited, and waited. Until 20 minutes into my interview, I ventured out of the car, walked up to the office and tentatively rang the bell, expecting that the previous interview must have overran. Mr Patel answered the door looking harassed and told me I was late. I apologised and told him I had been advised in two separate emails to wait for him to collect me from my car. He then said he had been out looking for me (not true as I had anxiously been checking at momentary intervals to see if anyone was approaching the car). We moved on to discuss the job and he showed me round. Before the end of the interview he invited me for a second interview, after which he spent five minutes advising me on how to buy the cheapest rail ticket to reach their Head Office in London,

During the second interview at their head office in London, I met JP and Mr Brutus himself, Keith Freedman, who displayed the laconic air of a retired rock star who didn't have to try too hard, in a black laminate and leather-chaired board room whose walls were lined with Trimfit shirts and Brutus products. The interview was fairly informal, more of a chat about what they needed, rather than a grilling. After Mr Freedman left, Mr Patel detained me in the boardroom to tell me about the problems he had had with his previous property manager. Apparently she had thrown out all the office furniture and replaced it without his consent, double-locked him out of the Brighton and Hove office when he tried to visit and refused to meet with him on Saturday mornings as required. Moreover he alleged she had done very little of the work he had asked her to do and standards were sliding and the property vacancy rate was rising. I was suitably appalled and assured him he would have no such problems with me. He did look a bit pained when I presented my full-price rail ticket for reimbursement, though I explained that I might not have made the interview on time if I'd waited for an off-peak train.

I was told I would know by the end of the week if I had the job. On Friday at 4.50pm, I finally had the call saying I had the job and could I start the following Tuesday? I said yes and accepted the emailed offer letter in writing (no mention of pensions), but it did state that that there was no sick pay scheme, which didn't bother me unduly as I am seldom sick. JP seemed delighted and said he would have my contract ready in a few days, but not to worry, he would make sure I got paid. He had also arranged to have the property manager who had retired a few years before to come in two days a week for the first month to help train me.

I started on the Tuesday and met Peter L, a charming gentleman of retirement age who had apparently left because he wanted to go part-time and they wanted someone full-time. He seemed to think that KF Properties were a good employer once you got used to their 'funny little ways', but had always had his own property management business with his son as well and also wanted to spend more time with his wife in their retirement, so full-time was not for him.

The first few days were pretty full on as I got on top of all the phone messages, emails, assorted admin and building works and then proceeded to get to grips with the lettings side as well. I let my first flat within days and was busily getting all the other vacant flats up to scratch. Some things about the job surprised me such as the website inferring that all KF properties were high-end, but the Brighton and Hove ones were actually quite basic and the former seafront hotel had faded floral communal carpets which looked forty years old if they were a day and were curling at the edges and worn on the stair treads, a scruffy carpeted 60s lift, mismatched chandelier bulbs and a rear elevation which had not been painted or had its windows cleaned in years. (strangely, the tenants seemed to be expected to clean their own exterior windows, even at high level, and quite rightly were complaining about this). However I thought better of tackling anything more than the chandelier bulbs in my first week, most of which were not working in any case, leaving one lobby in almost complete darkness and a risk to Health and Safety.

 JP seemed pleased with my progress and I met with him on Saturday morning. He brought my contract but neither of us had time to look at it as we had so much work to discuss. He asked me to check it and I could return it the following Saturday when we met again. I finally had time to read it after the weekend and was surprised to find there was no pension provision and no mention of one for the future, not least in light of government requirements to bring one in. I questioned this and a few minor points in a friendly letter making it clear I was entirely open to negotiation, albeit letting a duty phone allowance (for the phone I was expected to carry and respond to 24/7) and the requirement I could do no work for any other party while I worked for KF Properties pass. I was also apparently not allowed to take a day off for the three months of my probation, which seemed a little unreasonable, but a job was a job and a recession is a recession. However the codicil asking me to sign away my 48 hrs European working rights was labelled as 'optional' and I was invited to cross it out if I did not want to sign it so I did. JP later let it slip in a somewhat hysterical phone call that this clause had been rather less than optional.

I emailed my points to him and went to work next day, thinking no more about it, then at the and of the afternoon read his reply, which answered each point until the last point about pensions where he gave me one week's notice to leave!

I pleaded with JP to reverse his decision and then received a phone call in which he seemed to assume that because I had only served a week and was on three months probation, I had no employment rights and he could treat me how he liked with no comeback. I pointed out that he still needed a valid reason to dismiss me and there was such a thing as an 'automatically unfair dismissal' and he shouted me down on this.  Plus how could he dismiss me for wishing to question a contract (which he had asked me to check) when I was presumably expected to negotiate rent raises from the tenants? There was no reasoning with him though. Apparently the great man had also spoken and dismissed I was.

However being tighter than his own 'crotch-crushing' jeans, I was still required by Mr Brutus to work my week's notice rather than being paid to leave immediately.

That last week was particularly difficult as I served the tenants and contractors each day trying to be cheerful and professional and solve as many of their problems as I could and accomplish as much work as I could until the end (it wasn't their fault they were about to lose their latest property manager after all), but the few people I told at the end were extremely shocked. As for me I am still in shock and my polite request for a settlement agreement has fallen on deaf ears.

I certainly never expected a multi-million pound jeans tycoon and property mogul to behave like a cowboy. Then again, with no mention of Health and Safety either (normally the legal bane of one's life in property management) perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised.


Steve said...

One word: dodgy. I was waiting for the part where you contacted the BBC's Watchdog producers and got them involved. You have not been treated fairly at all, Laura. You have been conned, mis-sold and misinformed at every turn. I'm convinced part of their operation is illegal needs further investigation.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Hi Steve, Thanks for your consoling comments. Re 'illegal', you might say so but I couldn't possibly comment. I would not have thought a business that wealthy would need to be dodgy, but on the other hand their tightness was pretty extreme. They even wanted me to use my predecessors' business cards, with my name written over hers on a label!

Nota Bene said...

Oh my absolutely awful. I can't say shocking, because don't forget Brighton was Van Hoogstratten's territory...the place is full of spivs, conmen and the like...the property business is particularly full of dodgy types...hope you find something better and quickly

Marginalia said...

Good God, you appear to have had a lucky escape. It could have been much worse had these issues surfaced later on.
Asking you to use your car as a waiting room does appear bizarre.
Surely the job spec should have made it clear from the outset that the job was not pensionable.
Would you have commuted from Oxford to Brighton daily, or were you provided with a flat?

I agree with Steve, your treatment has been shameful. I'm tempted to put Morse in the case.

Chin up, it's their loss.

Wisewebwoman said...

What a lucky escape, Laura. And like someone said to me when I had similar career challenges "What you get at the beginning is the very best they can give you."
Waiting in a car? Sounds beyond dodgy and your supervisor sounds like a lunatic.

Greg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg said...

Poor you! I think asking about a pension is unlikely be the real reason. Possibly you were too smart and liable to stumble upon stuff you weren't meant to stumble on. If I were MD, I'd be calling the auditors in pronto to find out what was going on in my company. Or get the employee who hired you down to the doc's for a check-up from the neck up as this strange tale makes no sense as you say. I agree with other commentators that you are best off out of it. Good luck with finding a happier and saner situation.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Thanks for all the sympathy and interesting insights folks. Meantime my quest for a new (and improved) job goes on.