Oct. 6, 2011 — -- The owner of an Iowa convenience store chain has been called "the boss from hell" by a former worker who claims he offered prize money to employees who predicted which of their colleagues would be fired next.
A judge deciding an unemployment benefits case involving William Ernst, the owner of a Bettandorf, Iowa-based chain of QC Marts, found his "contest" to be "egregious and deplorable."
According to court records, Ernst issued a memo to workers in March that read, "NEW CONTEST - GUESS THE NEXT CASHIER WHO WILL BE FIRED !!!"
The memo explained the rules of a game in which employees were told to write the name of the next cashier they thought would be fired, along with the date and their own name on a piece of paper. Those who guessed correctly would win a $10 prize.
"And no fair picking Mike Miller from Rockingham," the memo added in boldfaced capital letters. "He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a had [sic] and talking on his cell phone. Good luck!!!!"
"It was a game to him," said Misty Shelsky of Davenport, Iowa, who had worked at a QC Mart for two years as a cashier.
The 32-year-old mother of three initially thought the memo was a prank. When she found out the contest was not a joke, she, her store manager and two others quit.
"I felt like we were forced out. It was a big game, but playing with people's lives isn't funny," Shelsky said.
"It made me physically ill to think about writing someone's name down," she added. "These are my friends. And it made me sick to think someone would do that to me. Everyone's head was on the chopping block."
When Shelsky applied for unemployment benefits, Ernst contested the claim, saying she had left voluntarily.
Shelsky said she had little choice.
"That memo created an extremely hostile environment for us and it pitted employee against employee," she said.
Court records also include letters from other QC Mart employees who called the contest "bizarre and unprofessional." Another said it "created an atmosphere of distrust, intimidation and paranoia."
In the hearing before a judge, Anna DeFrieze, a supervisor with QC Marts, defended the contest. She said it took aim at employees who had a history of disregarding company policy.
"This fax was meant toward employees, like Misty herself, who refused to follow the rules," DeFrieze said. "If you're breaking the rules you need to stop. They're repeatedly told not to use their phones while working. Bad language is unacceptable. Playing video games, unacceptable. ... None of them was doing their jobs. "
But, the judge ruled in Shelsky's favor, saying she should not be barred from receiving unemployment insurance because, although she quit, she had "good cause attributable to the employer."
In her written decision, Administrative Law Judge Susan D. Ackerman said that Ernst "clearly created a hostile work environment by suggesting employees turn on each other for a minimal monetary prize."
Calls to Ernst's home and business were not returned.