OUR BEST BITS FROM THE LAST 10 YEARS — AND OUR TAKE ON WHAT’S COMING NEXT
By Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog and director of the Good + Fair Employers Club (below)
When I founded Graduate Fog in April 2010, I feared there wouldn’t be enough to write about. I needn’t have worried.
Pretty much immediately, the blog became a much-needed platform for championing the talent and potential of the UK’s young job seekers, and calling out the employers who failed to treat you with the care and respect you deserve.
Graduate Fog was an instant hit because we stood up to bullies. We started by naming and shaming big firms and famous people caught running unpaid internships (high profile scalps included Tony Blair, Simon Cowell, Philip Green, Vivienne Westwood, the Ritz Hotel and the National Trust).
Young people — tired of being taken advantage of — loved our David and Goliath approach, and our exclusives were picked up again and again by the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror, Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Vice, BuzzFeed… and pretty much every other news outlet you can think of.
We were also the first to write about zero hours contracts, to shine a light on the dubious practice of graduate scheme exit fees, and to challenge employers who still hire based on their ‘polish’ and personal connections, when they should be assessing your potential and talent.
Happily, great progress has been made in the last decade. The success of our Good + Fair Employers Club proves that a growing number of big businesses are now on-board with the principles we have been shouting about for years.
We ask every new member of our Club to take a test to ensure they measure up to our standards, and we’re happy to say that the vast majority pass with flying colours.
Although the Club and Graduate Fog are not directly linked, all our members understand that their annual subscription fee helps to power Graduate Fog, and they value by our ability to engage with and marshal a large audience of young job seekers.
I’ll soon publish a post about my views on the challenges I think are coming next. For example, it’s important that Covid-19 outbreak doesn’t interrupt the progress we’ve made in the last decade (especially on diversity and inclusion) and I fear that unscrupulous bosses may be tempted to lean on unpaid interns to boost businesses that have been hit hard by the lockdown.
But first I’d like to take a moment to remember some of the high points of the last decade. And, as we do so, I’d like to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has supported Graduate Fog over the last 10 years.
To the graduates who’ve provided tip-offs about dodgy employers, the mainstream media journalists who’ve provided extra oxygen for our stories by running them yourselves (thanks for links – they’ve really boosted our SEO!), and to everyone who’s transformed your outrage into action by sharing and retweeting our stories via social media: We will forever be grateful.
Here’s to the next decade! For as long as young job seekers are vulnerable to exploitation, we’ll be here to fight your corner. Bring it on.
TEN MAGIC MOMENTS FROM OUR FIRST DECADE
(1) The X Factor pays out for unpaid internships
When we heard rumours there were “exhausted” unpaid interns working on The X Factor (then the biggest show on TV), we were peeved. Further digging revealed there were at least four youngsters working on the show six or seven days a week, doing 10-15 hour shifts. Graduate Fog broke the story, which Caitlin Moran spotted and retweeted during The X Factor final, sparking public outrage, enormous press coverage and talk of an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs. The story had a happy ending — a year later, several former interns told us they’d received cheques for up to £3,000 as compensation.
It was a similar story with Philip Green’s fashion empire Arcadia, who we challenged over an internship in the Miss Selfridge press office, described as ‘dogsbody work’, paying travel and lunch expenses only. Arcadia denied any wrongdoing, but sent cheques to dozens of former interns, 12 months later. In a statement, they said: “Having had a thorough review with regards to interns, the company is perfectly satisfied that it has complied, and is fully compliant, in this area.” Make of this what you will.
(2) Tony Blair caught out over unpaid internships
Fun fact: It was Tony Blair’s government that introduced the National Minimum Wage law, in 1998. So imagine our surprise to discover the former Prime Minister was recruiting for an internship at his private office, paying expenses only. When the successful candidate said he couldn’t work full time for free, they gave the role to someone else – and he came to us. Graduate Fog broke the story, and the world’s media followed, for what as our biggest media story ever (we were in TIME, and featured on Have I Got News For You). Mr Blair later apologised and vowed that all his internships would be paid roles from now on.
(3) 24,000 people force BBC2 to scrap a planned TV show where youngsters compete for a minimum wage job
Yuck. In the summer of 2015, representatives for a TV production company Twenty Twenty wrote to ask Graduate Fog for help finding participants for a new BBC TV show in which unemployed youngsters would compete for the grand prize of… a minimum wage job. We told them to get lost, and wrote a blog post saying it “felt a bit Hunger Games”. The UK media and public agreed it was a crass concept akin to ‘poverty porn’ – including the Telegraph, Guardian Vice and (eventually) the BBC themselves. Then a Graduate Fog reader started a petition which gathered 24,000 signatures — and the show was scrapped. People power!
Unfortunately, this wasn’t our last run-in with the BBC, who in May 2019 advertised an unpaid runner role at Wimbledon (bad) – stating that ‘physical fitness [is] essential’ (really bad). We argued that the UK’s best known broadcaster is more than capable of adapting the (seven) roles for the best candidates, should they have additional needs. Incredibly, there was even a disclaimer at the foot of the ad, stating: “We are committed to equality of opportunity, and welcome applications from individuals regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, social background, religion and/or belief’.” After we challenged them (backed by the Sun, the SNP’s Stewart McDonald and top lawyer Jolyon Maugham QC), the BBC changed the role description so it was more like work experience than a job (hmm…) and deleted the line about physical fitness.
(4) Weird Conservative Party memo tells MPs to re-badge interns as ‘campaign volunteers’
During David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, a bizarre memo was sent to Conservative MPs advising them to start calling their interns ‘campaign volunteers’ in order to ‘reduce the risk of potential hostile questioning’ about their unpaid positions. When advertising these roles, MPs were urged to replace the words ‘work’ and ‘tasks’ with ‘help’ and ‘campaigning administration’. Also provided was a ‘suggested template reply’ for MPs to paste into an email, should they face any awkward questions. A Graduate Fog spy leaked the memo to us, and our exclusive was picked up by pretty much every UK media outlet, prompting public outrage. The Conservative Party never apologised, insisting it was simply trying to be a responsible employer.
(5) Capita scraps graduate ‘exit fees’ — thanks to pressure from us
In July 2017, Graduate Fog readers alerted us to the fact Capita, one of the UK’s biggest outsourcing firms, was running a graduate scheme which included four months of unpaid training. This weirdness turned out to be the tip of iceberg. Following coverage in the Guardian, dozens of Capita ‘Novus’ graduates emerged, saying they understood they were not allowed to quit the scheme without paying Capita up to £18.000 – within 30 days. We then discovered that those who had left were being chased hard for the money by Capita and their lawyers. The bad press kept coming (thanks to the Guardian’s Sarah Butler and the BBC’s Tony Bonnici), and a year later Capita scrapped their ‘exit fees’ policy, replacing it with incentives to encourage graduates to stay on their scheme out of choice. Like every other decent graduate employer, then.
(6) Our Good + Fair Employers Club launches
When we launched Graduate Fog, our fights tended to be characterised as ‘Young people v employers’. Happily, things shifted over the years – and we realised that lots of employers share our passion for making the world of work a kinder, more inclusive place for young people from all backgrounds to start their career. In March 2018 we launched the Good + Fair Employers Club, bringing together some of the UK’s most forward-thinking employers of young people. (We even make them pass a test, to check!). Our brilliant members – including Google, Channel 4, Vodafone, KPMG and Santander – are committed to leading from the front. As the post-coronavirus landscape looks uncertain, we expect these ‘good and fair’ firms will have an increasingly important role to play in reminding other employers why high standards matter – now, more than ever.
(7) The Financial Times profiles our founder
A half-page spread in the Financial Times is a big deal – and Graduate Fog’s founder Tanya de Grunwald was delighted with this coverage last year. Journalist Janina Conboye’s piece carefully detailed Tanya’s achievements in the last 10 years, and how Graduate Fog’s campaigning history is now embedded in the DNA of the Good + Fair Employers Club.
(8) Cancer Research UK becomes the first big UK charity to pay their interns
“What’s the difference between and intern and a volunteer? It’s so hard for charities to differentiate… Plus they need the unpaid help because they’re underfunded and doing such important work…” That’s what we heard for eight years, whenever we challenged a charity (such as the National Trust – repeatedly) for running endless unpaid internships – which looked much more like junior unpaid jobs than volunteering to us. So, when Cancer Research UK came and told us they were considering making all their internships paid, we were thrilled to advise them on positioning this news, and to connect them with the Guardian who ran the story as an exclusive. Why did CRUK make this change? Their CEO simply said: “It is not right that those who can’t afford to intern unpaid should be excluded from gaining essential experience in an organisation like Cancer Research UK.” In doing this, CRUK proved that it is possible for charities to draw a distinction between volunteers (“who give their time altruistically”) and interns (“who are keen to start their careers in the charity sector”). You just create two checklists and see which is which. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
(9) We challenge government ‘workfare’ schemes
Nobody likes seeing high youth unemployment figures – and it’s understandable that any government would prefer that youngsters without jobs were in education or training of some sort, rather than twiddling their thumbs. However, education and training can be expensive – and sometimes those in charge can be overly enthusiastic about squeezing young people into training opportunities that are not as high quality as they should be. On several occasions, we’ve challenged the government in cases where we feel young people are getting a particularly raw deal – most recently with where jobless youngsters were sent to do shop work shifts at stores like Poundland and B&M Stores, and told it was a ‘work experience programme’. We said this was work that should be paid and there was no real training or mentorship value to these placements. Lately, the work experience programme seems to have improved the standard of placements offered. For now…
(10) Zero hours contracts, disability advice and sponsored articles – the content that has surprised us
With some stories, we just know they’ll be popular – but others really surprise us when we check the analytics stats. We were initially reticent about working with employers on co-created (sponsored) content – but our stand-out format ‘How to get a graduate job at…’ has been a consistent hit with readers, racking up thousands of views, and jaw-dropping ‘time on page’ stats (indicating you’re reading the whole thing). We realised we were on to something we were one of the first to write about zero-hours contracts (back i 2012!) and the page was instantly a huge driver of traffic via Google – so obviously young people were searching for it. And our articles on disability and difference – we’ve covered dyspraxia, dyslexia, Asperger’s and stammering – are also some of the most popular on the site.
And the ones that got away (for now)…
The Department for Education
When Justine Greening was Secretary of State for Education, we begged her for a meeting to discuss unpaid internships — but her gatekeepers insisted that unpaid internships weren’t within her remit. Then we tried her successor, Damian Hinds, whose team finally agreed to a meeting… about something totally different. They didn’t want to discuss unpaid internships — they wanted us to help improve their graduate jobs website. We refused the meeting, and haven’t bothered with whoever-it-is-now (Gavin something?). because we’ve concluded there is no point. Instead, we have a new plan. Watch this space.
Employers still charging graduate exit fees: FDM, Sparta Global and Frontline
This is a trend that really needs to die – now. Despite Capita’s climb-down after we called them out for pursuing graduates for huge sums they claimed they owed after quitting their (horrible) graduate scheme (see above), fellow cheap-and-nasty IT outsourcing firms FDM and Sparta Global continue to lead their young hires to believe they’ll have to pay back thousands of pounds if they leave in less than two years. Both companies claim these fees are to reimburse them for the investment they’ve made in the (crummy) training the graduates have had. We say the costs are not reasonable, and that employers should pay for training their staff – and we’ll help graduates fight them in court if we need to (which it looks like we will). FDM and Sparta Global’s conduct is grubby, but the employer that really shocks us is the supposedly reputable graduate programme Frontline (Teach First for the social care sector), whose graduates have told us they feel close to breaking point, as they feel they cannot quit roles involving high pressure and emotionally distressing work with challenging families and vulnerable people, including children. To all these organisations’ CEOs: Shame on you. And we’re watching.