QC Mart Criticized for 'Who Gets Fired Next?' Contest

State judge sides with former employees that memo created hostile environment

BETTENDORF, Iowa -- William Ernst, the owner of the QC Mart chain of convenience stores in the Bettendorf, Iowa, area, recently offered prizes to employees who could predict which of them would be fired next, said the Des Moines Register.

A state judge has called that a "deplorable" act and sided with the company's ex-employees in an unemployment case.

In March, Ernst sent a memo to all of his employees:

"New Contest – Guess The Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired!!! To win our game, write on a piece of paper the name of the next cashier you believe will be fired. Write their name [the person who will be fired], today's date, today's time, and your name. Seal it in an envelope and give it to the manager to put in my envelope.

Here's how the game will work: We are doubling our secret-shopper efforts, and your store will be visited during the day and at night several times a week. Secret shoppers will be looking for cashiers wearing a hat, talking on a cell phone, not wearing a QC Mart shirt, having someone hanging around/behind the counter and/or a personal car parked by the pumps after 7 p.m., among other things.

If the name in your envelope has the right answer, you will win $10 CASH. Only one winner per firing unless there are multiple right answers with the exact same name, date, and time. Once we fire the person, we will open all the envelopes, award the prize, and start the contest again.

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

QC Mart cashier Misty Shelsky was so shocked by the memo, she told the newspaper, that she and her store manager, along with a few other employees, quit as soon as they saw the memo and realized it wasn't a joke or a prank. "It was very degrading," she said. "We looked at that, then looked at each other, and said, 'OK, we're done'."

When Shelsky applied for unemployment benefits, Ernst challenged the claim, saying--according to the report--that she had resigned voluntarily. The dispute led to a recent hearing at which QC Mart Area Supervisor Anna DeFrieze testified that the contest was created by Ernst because his employees weren't following company rules.

"None of them were doing their job," she testified. "They've repeatedly been told not to use their phone while they're working, that bad language is totally unacceptable and, you know, playing video games while you're working is not acceptable. They just broke all those rules."

Shelsky testified that she and her colleagues quit due to the hostile work environment created by the contest. "My entire store was up in arms over it, and that's why we all left," she testified.

State records show that at least two QC Mart employees sent letters to company managers objecting to the contest, said the report. One worker wrote that the contest was "bizarre and unprofessional." Another worker wrote that it had "created an atmosphere of distrust, intimidation and paranoia."

Administrative Law Judge Susan D. Ackerman sided with the workers, calling the contest "egregious and deplorable." Shelsky was awarded unemployment benefits.

"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."