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'Boss from hell' knuckle-rapped for 'firing contests'

Crossing the line between motivation and harassment

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Not all thankless jobs are in IT. In the American heartland, a court has sided with the ex-employees of one businessman who held "firing contests", in which he offered cash prizes to staffers asked to predict which unfortunate worker was next to face his wrath.

"This guy was the boss from hell. He treated pretty much all of us like dirt," one victim of William Ernst, owner of the small Midwestern convenience-store chain QC Mart, told The Des Moines Register."

Ernst's fun li'l motivational scheme, detailed in a memo sent to employees entitled "New Contest – Guess The Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired!!!", told employees that he'd be sending spies – "secret shoppers", as they're known in the trade – around to his convenience stores to root out employees who were not abiding by Ernst's rules, such as his prohibition of hats.

Employees were encouraged to write down the name of the employee they thought would next be snared in Ernst's trap, and seal that prediction in an envelope. After the next firing, Ernst would open the envelopes and the lucky winner would receive a princely $10.

"And no fair picking Mike Miller from (the Rockingham Road store)," Ernst wrote. "He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a hat and talking on his cell phone. Good luck!!!!!!!!!!"

After receiving the memo, several employees at one convenience store decided they had had enough of Ernst, and quit. When they applied for unemployment benefits, Ernst contested the claim, saying that since the resignations were voluntary, unemployment was not justified.

Judge Susan Ackerman, however, sided with the employees, calling the contest "egregious and deplorable." In her ruling, she declared that "The employer's actions have clearly created a hostile work environment by suggesting its employees turn on each other for a minimal monetary prize," Ackerman ruled. "This was an intolerable and detrimental work environment."

One commenter to the Des Moines Register story asked, quite logically, "Do I win a prize for guessing that Mr. Ernst will be the next person to be fired?" ®

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