The Jesus College website lists an impressive number of commercial products. Bed and breakfast style accommodation, conference packages and private dining services all give a sense that the College is more than a mere academic institution. The “We’re on Trip Advisor” stickers and “Five-star hygiene” rating signs greeting visitors on entrance to the lodge give the sense, if anything, that one is entering a hotel.
Of course, such enterprise is to be expected; the College has to generate extra revenue somehow if it is to meet all its costs. But to what lengths are they prepared to go to achieve this? A number of students would argue that the increasing corporatisation of the college is creating an unfriendly, impersonal and vacuous atmosphere.
However, this narrative has recently taken a nastier twist, one which has brought the Jesus College staff into the mix. Recently appointed catering managers have left staff feeling bullied and harassed in their pursuit of an impassive standard of service, presumably only for their non-student customers. Many members of staff, some of whom have worked at the College for over a decade, recently quit their jobs due to the increasingly unfriendly environment they have found themselves working in.
I spoke to Sara, who was, until a few weeks ago, a member of the catering staff. She told me that she was prepared to share an account of her recent treatment by the College, as well as the experiences of some of her co-workers.
Sara first talked to me about Theresa, who, after 12 years of service for the College, left last month. According to Sara, this was due to the harassment she received by the new managers, which started to make work unbearable. “She was continually watched over as she worked, receiving criticism about her appearance and how she interacted with the customers.” Giving an example, Sara told me, “Theresa never wore make-up in her life. When the new management took over, they asked her to start wearing it and to make more of an effort with her appearance.” Furthermore, “For 12 years she wore trousers to work, and had never worn a skirt. But one day they insisted she start wearing one to make herself look better. It upset her tremendously.”
Within a couple of months, these frequent demands took their toll, and Theresa quit her job.
Sara also talked about Helen, another member of the catering staff who quit her job at the end of last year after more than fourteen years at the college. According to Sara, “Helen had taken some time off from work for health reasons. When she returned she asked for reduced hours to allow herself to ease back into the work. The College wouldn’t allow it, and Helen found herself becoming exhausted from the full time work. One day she just stopped showing up. Of course, the college did nothing to acknowledge her years of service and that was that.”
Sara also told me that they were in fact given these names when they joined the College, as their real ones were deemed too “foreign”. This was before the change of management, but is telling of a longer program of mistreatment of staff at the college, as a consequence of it bending over backwards to generate revenue. Sara then began to describe her own experience, and why she had decided to quit her job. She told me she had worked at Jesus for a couple of years and would have stayed longer until a number of unpleasant encounters with new managers changed her mind.
“For two years I tied my hair up, and no one said a thing,” Sara told me. “But then it suddenly became an issue – it wasn’t up enough. I was called into meeting after meeting after meeting – five in the space of three weeks, they wouldn’t let it go.” The second meeting left her in tears, but by the end she started becoming more exasperated than upset. “One day I was called up at 4am to attend to a young relative whose mother was in hospital. I had to miss work that day. But the managers were not impressed and I was told on the phone that there would be a meeting about this. In the meeting I was told to give notice next time, which is tricky to do at four in the morning for an unplanned hospital visit.”
“In the fifth meeting about my hair, one of the managers took me into a room with a brush and said she would do my hair for me. It was obviously a patronising thing to do, and it was then that I realised this had gone too far; two days later I handed in my notice.”
In total, at least five members of staff have left the College in the space of a few weeks due to perceived mistreatment. Some of these people had no other job as a fall back, meaning for them unemployment is simply more preferable to staying on. This is surely unacceptable – a college should be a friendly place, in which staff feel part of the community and not ‘the help’. As students, we must not become indifferent to such mistreatment under our very noses. It is no good espousing worldly ideals if unfairness occurs right under our noses for our four cheese ravioli.
The names in this piece have been changed to preserve anonymity. Jesus College did not respond to our comment request.