“You’re fired”, is an expression which HR professionals prefer not to use in this modern era of consultative personal development, in which managers are encouraged to frame even a dismissal as a life opportunity.  But the legendary comment suggests that those who are competing in what we’re told is “the ultimate job interview” are actually employees.  After all, how could you fire an interviewee?

“You have not been successful in this non-legally binding relationship which is not to be construed by either party as an employment contract and in which all rights to wages and indeed to the exploitation of moving or still footage of your image is waived” is not quite as catchy as Sir Alan’s line.

Could contestants actually have the last laugh?  When they are competing for the apprenticeship with the “six figure salary”, are they in fact an apprentice already?  A worker under European legislation?  An employee?  A partner in a business?  A good old fashioned job applicant?  And what about their legal rights?

Just in case you feel frustrated in your current role and are inclined to submit yourself to twelve weeks of humiliation at the hands of a group of thirteen wannabe celebrities and a self made tycoon, you may like to check out the application form for The Apprentice.  I got as far as “how would someone who knows you very well describe your worst qualities” and “what would you change about yourself” before concluding that a job application form which reads like a therapy session was not for me.  But the lawyer in me just had to take a peek at the terms and conditions.  There is no mention of pay (except for the token but legally binding £1 payment for all intellectual property rights) and certainly no mention of one’s rights while “on set”.  The requirement is that you should give up your job in the hope of attaining the Apprenticeship – so you pass from full time employment to full time interviewing.  How can that be?  Mutuality of obligation is a cornerstone of the employment relationship.  There seems to be nothing in the contract obliging the hopefuls to stay and do the tasks, nor on Sir Alan to give them work, but it would make pretty dull television if there wasn’t that dual obligation.  So it’s possible these candidates are already employees.  But what about pay?  As far as we are led to believe, they get no remuneration for their efforts (admittedly small in context) to expand Sir Alan’s empire.

It seems unlikely that the young hopefuls (and we’ll come back to the issue of their youth, later) are true job applicants.  It is equally unlikely that they are competing for a true apprenticeship.  That certainly wouldn’t offer them a “six figure salary”.  A traditional apprentice would live in his (and it usually was “his”) master’s premises.  The master was “in loco parentis” and he would maintain the apprentice, providing free board and lodging, medicine and medical care.  There was no implied right to wages.  The master had a right reasonably to chastise his apprentice – which could include corporal punishment.  So far, so unlikely; why would anyone wish to compete in such a gruelling and public display of arrogance and ineptitude for a real apprenticeship?  But hold on a moment – perhaps the hopefuls are already apprentices.  Sir Alan’s ticking off in the boardroom bears an uncanny resemblance to the stern “disappointed not angry” father figure, even if he uses more colourful language than your average Victorian father, and he has been nothing if not generous with the spread of hospitality for his protégés.  Verbal chastisement is one thing, but it seems unlikely Sir Alan will be taking a horsewhip to his applicants or the successful candidate. (Shame! They just don’t make documentaries the way they used to).

So it seems an apprenticeship is not already on foot.  But there is more than an application process for a job going on here.  There are jobs already – Sir Alan has given these individuals money and expects them to go out and make it multiply.  He is setting the tasks he wants them to achieve, and is fairly firmly in control of how they should do it, and provides all the resources, contacts and vehicles necessary for the project.  That’s typical of an employer.  These individuals could well be employees working for benefits in kind, in the form of a sumptuous house with pool, champagne reception, fame and, possibly, a permanent job at the end of what could well be a twelve week fixed term contract.

If that’s the case and they are fixed term employees how can they be fired?  Well, not instantaneously, that’s for sure.  Unlike the US, we have no such thing as employment at will in the UK.  The statutory entitlement to one week’s notice of termination in the first two years of employment really undermines the show’s basic tenet.

So where does this leave Sir Alan? Watch this space: Why Sir Alan could be off the hook for unfair dismissal claims if he follows statutory dispute resolution and dismissal procedures; watch viewing figures plummet as he drafts invitation to a pre-dismissal meeting, while Margaret and Nick draft supporting witness statements; wonder if his hopefuls are actually “workers”; and other nasties of Euro-legislation in store for Sir Alan…

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