guess your next coworker to be fired and win a prize!

Want to see something that makes the “I’ll fire you if you don’t replace the milk” guy look like a model manager?

Gawker is really on a roll with their coverage of crazy workplace stories: An Iowa convenience store owner ran a contest for his employees where they could win $10 by guessing which of their coworkers would be fired next. Here’s his memo explaining the game:

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!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously.

This ended up in the news after a state judge ruled that the employees who quit in protest could indeed collect unemployment, writing, “The employer’s actions have clearly created a hostile work environment by suggesting its employees turn on each other for a minimal monetary prize. This was an intolerable and detrimental work environment.”

(You’ve got to wonder about the word “minimal” in there; it’s not like this would have been better if the prize had been larger.)

And the owner’s defense of the contest? At the unemployment hearing, the store manager — not the owner, who created the contest — explained that the contest came about because employees weren’t following store 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.”

Moral of the story: If you’re a manager who finds yourself having to push, cajole, or run contests in order to get your employees to do their jobs correctly, you are not doing your job correctly, and you should probably be on that firing list yourself.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. TeaBQ*

    Hear hear. I think your last paragraph should be read by every manager out there. I can’t imagine the mindset behind someone who would do this sort of contest.

  2. jersey knit*

    Such a minimal reward is just all the more insulting a. for its underlying assumption that an employee’s integrity can be compromised so cheaply, and b. by placing such a small price tag on the value of employees’ “loyalty.” A bigger sum would at least indicate that the boss has enough respect to think it might take more than $10 to get coworkers to compromise their integrity and place bets on each others’ failures.

    I just worry about the state of the country when workers have so few rights and are almost expected to feel grateful for indignities because, hey, at least they have a job (regardless of whether it makes ends meet). Corporations aren’t doing people a favor by hiring them — they couldn’t make money if they didn’t hire them. And since slavery was abolished 150 years ago, it’s a moot point. /rant

    Alison, what are your thoughts in general on the contraction of workers’ rights in the past few decades? Do you have prognostications on the long-term employment landscape in America? I’m curious about your opinion, since you have such unique insight into the American workplace and the consciousness of American workers.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I could write an whole treatise on this, but here’s the short version: I’m conflicted. I tend to favor the government leaving people and businesses free to make their own decisions as much as possible, and I think that a lot of the protections that we’ve put in place have had unintended consequences (such as the huge number of managers not firing people who should be fired for legitimate reasons, because they’re afraid of lawsuits).

      That said, as long as we tie health insurance to employment, it makes it very hard to to commit fully to this stance.

      (By the way, I’d disagree that there’s been a contraction of workers’ rights in the last few decades. They’ve actually expanded, believe it or not. I think what you’re feeling is that common practices have changed in ways that aren’t addressed by the law — i.e., it’s not common to work at one company for life anymore. The social contract between employer and employee has changed a bit.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        To give you one example of the way I look at this: Take the legislation proposed by President Obama that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against the unemployed in hiring. Sounds good, right? But how is it really going to work? If I’m hiring for a job, I might have all kinds of legitimate reasons for preferring Candidate A (who happens to have a job) over Candidate B (who happens to be unemployed). But now I have to worry about whether I can really hire Candidate A without worrying about Candidate B suing. And even if I win that lawsuit, that’s an expensive and time-consuming thing. I think the intent of the legislation is certainly right, but I just don’t think it’s going to work well in practice. And I think we’ve seen similar problems with all kinds of other workplace laws. Just because something sounds right in theory doesn’t mean it’ll work out so well in practice.

        And then tying it back to this manager who ran this disgusting contest: I do think this guy should be legally free to act like an ass in this way. And then he can bear the consequences of that — a PR disaster, customers presumably taking their business elsewhere, loss of employees, a harder time getting good employees in the future, etc. Good businesses don’t act this way — not just because they’re not jerks, but because it’s bad for business. Treating your employees with decency is good for business — people will work harder and get more done, you’ll be able to attract and retain great people, etc. But I don’t particularly want the government involving itself in the day-to-day running of an organization.

        1. Anon y. mouse*

          Nicely said. I agree with you on the theory – I’d like to see as little government involvement as is reasonable. But at this point, it’s been proven over and over again that businesses (especially the larger corporations) will abuse their employees and customers if it’s to their advantage – and it often is. So it’s a complicated balancing act.

              1. jersey knit*

                It’s almost the default, right? Either you look for holes to poke in every story or you have to include so many details to avoid hole-pokers that no one listens to whatever story you’re telling. Hopefully that doesn’t sound totally nonsensical.

        2. Joey*

          That proposal is a complete bluff in part for exactly the reasons you cited. There are better ways to deal with those that advertise unemployed need not apply. But I think healthcare is a whole other ball of wax that needs to be untied from employment completely. Fundamentally shouldn’t everyone in the richest nation in the world have affordable healthcare, not just those who work?

        3. jersey knit*

          Thanks so much for responding so thoughtfully. By contraction of workers’ rights, I partially meant as a result of the disintegration/shifts in priorities/negative perceptions of unions and the resulting lack of accountability for anyone to enforce the protections that do exist.

          I’m thinking of a charter school teacher in CO who was told she should switch to formula and fired for needing accommodations to pump breast milk during the day — it would have been illegal with or without a union, but if the administration had been subject to potential union pressure, it most likely would have served as a deterrent to that kind of outright discrimination. Fortunately, the facts were favorable enough for the ACLU to take on her case, but she was unbelievably lucky to get effective, free legal help from one of the organizations able to give it.

          Litigation is so prohibitively expensive and draining (since it takes years) that few people can actually undertake it without some huge stroke of good fortune, even when there’s a genuine problem. Even then, most people aren’t willing to risk the retaliation or blacklisting that could result. Discrimination based on race is illegal, but there’s 25% unemployment among people of color. Although age discrimination is illegal, older workers have a very difficult time finding work — however, almost by design, it’s very difficult to prove discrimination. (Not to mention that people who face employment discrimination are probably the least able to afford legal representation to begin with.) Similarly, I think it would be really difficult to prove in court that an employer didn’t hire you based on employment status (especially since most people probably have many other things making them bad candidates), but just having that statute on the books sends a message that employers shouldn’t reject candidates based on their employment status alone and that in the most egregious cases, people are entitled to recourse.

          But I see your point — by having any rights, we have more rights than 99 percent of human history. But it’s so depressing to write that!

        4. Mike C.*

          But you simply point to those legitimate reasons when challenged. You face the very same issues anytime you look at a hiring situation and replace “is unemployed” with “is a member of a particular race” or “is covered under the ADA” and so on. Employers are still somehow able to hire people now, so I’m not sure how adding “unemployed” will change things. Add to that the fact that some states already have such a law on the books – Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed such a law earlier this summer so can’t we just look at New Jersey and see how it goes rather than speculating?

          The other problem with letting employers act like jackasses and bear the consequences is that there is a party that has to suffer damage before anything (maybe) happens. It also requires that the suffering party have some means to protect themselves and fight back after suffering. If the suffering party doesn’t have superior means or savvy to protect themselves and fight back in the legal or media spheres against a party that is already ahead of the game, then the suffering party is screwed and the employee gets to continue doing whatever they want.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think this one is different than discrimination for race, etc. There really are jobs where skills deteriorate with lack of use, or where trends and standards change quickly, and so there are legitimate reasons, in some contexts, where a candidate would be stronger because they had more recent experience than someone who didn’t. Now, is that discriminating against the unemployed? I guess you could call it that. But it would still be a reasonable call for an employer to make, and not one a law or court should punish them for.

            1. Jaime*

              One consequence that might be unintentional could be stay-at-home parents returning to work after a long period of unemployment. In some cases this may be really good, but some might be really bad. What is the threshold? Is there a threshold? Are there distinctions drawn between someone who’s been unemployed for 6 versus 10 years? Should there be any distinction drawn?

            2. Mike C.*

              The skills thing is a fair point, but I feel that a few questions or tests could sort out if an unemployed person still “has it” or not. Then an employer is back to a merit based system based on qualifications rather than the whims of inept bankers killing the economy.

              That being said, it’s important to note that if you have a class of otherwise qualified people unable to work, that has a serious cost to the rest of society. All of the terrible things that happen to the unemployed, their families and communities will be magnified for little if any actual business gain. And it’s the rest of us that pay these costs.

              I don’t think I should have to foot that bill.

        5. Ed*

          I also agree with you in theory; but I’d like to see it in practice. You point out that this is a PR disaster, but I don’t see that–the only name in this post is someone who got canned. If we expect the market to “shame the devil” and get business to stop acting like jerks, let’s go for it. What’s the name of the business here, who’s the owner, who’s the manager. Let’s name some names here, please!

        6. Anonymous*

          I agree that it’s hard to come down completely on one side or the other. But I don’t think that legislation regarding discriminating against the unemployed would change anything. There are already laws about discriminating based on race, etc, and making hiring decisions based on pregnancy, but it still goes on all the time. When I was pregnant and looking for work, I knew perfectly well that was the reason I didn’t get some jobs–this was back when the market wasn’t nearly as tight, and the places were incredibly enthusiastic about me until we met in person and they noticed my bump. But it was always “We found another candidate who met the qualifications of the job better” or “We’ve decided to promote from within,” etc. So businesses will always find a way to get around it; I don’t really believe that anyone would really hire a protected class just to avoid a lawsuit. But I don’t think that’s a good reason to just forget about the law altogether.

      2. Anonymous*

        That said, as long as we tie health insurance to employment, it makes it very hard to to commit fully to this stance.

        Surely that’s merely another thing for employees to weigh when deciding whether or not a workplace really is unbearable.

    2. Samie*

      I really like your comment, Jersey. I agree with you on this, and I’ve always been willing to walk away from a job where the managers treat people like trash.

      Its especially bad in retail, I’ve noticed. I have to wonder why that is.

  3. Josh S*

    I was going to forward this to you, but you beat me to it!

    While I think the whole ‘contest’ is horrifying and demoralizing, I’m not sure how it “created a hostile work environment by suggesting its employees turn on each other for a minimal monetary prize.” Nowhere in the contest do I see anyone being asked to narc on their fellow co-workers or back-stab to win the prize. Rather, the company was using a bunch of secret shoppers to report on the behavior of the clerks (again, a failure of management). This is stupid and bad, but not as evil-manager-makes-underlings-rat-each-other-out-to-be-part-of-evil-mandatory-contest as Gawker (and others) make it out to be.

    It’s not like they were saying, “Rat out your co-workers who disobey store policy and get $10.” It was, “Guess which of your co-workers is going to get caught out next (since all of you are idiot slackers who aren’t following the rules). If you happen to be right, you’ll win $10.” A stupid contest, to be sure, but not one requiring traitorous intent in order to win a minimal prize.

    If the contest were structured as, “The first person to get caught breaking the rules gets nothing, the next person gets $10, the third person gets $20 … the Nth person gets $50, and anyone who is not caught with an infraction gets $75.” Would you have a problem with that? (Apart from needing to resort to ‘bribes’ in order to do the basic parts of your job, rather than managing the employees to do so using, you know, management skills?)

    The incentives are all wrong and backwards in this contest, and it certainly was an idiotic way to go about it. But I’m not sure it was as evil as some seem to be making it…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the thing that makes it so horrible is that it makes light of people getting fired, which isn’t funny or something that you base a contest around.

      I agree that it doesn’t rise to the legal standard of “hostile workplace” in the sense that these employees couldn’t sue for it; the judge in this case was an unemployment judge, ruling solely on whether the conditions there were bad enough that a reasonable person would have quit, which is relevant for unemployment eligibility (but a whole different thing from “hostile workplace” lawsuits).

    2. NikkiN*

      I disagree that using secret shoppers is an idiotic management idea. The idea that this company was paying for secret shoppers tells me that their managment structure was such that there were either not managers at every store or not one there for the 24 hours they were open. I have never used a “secret shopper” to check on my employees but I do run a 24/7 business and it is impossible to be everywhere and see everything. When I come in on off shifts to see staff, they are regularly on their best behavior, so I can see where secret shoppers are appealing. Don’t get me wrong- a firing contest is unethical, however, I can relate to the frustration of getting an entry level employee with minimal drive to follow rules they don’t believe in. I have at times wondered if the job market for this level of staff is very tight- as I often have to fire them when coaching to improve basic behavior is unsuccessful.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I don’t have a problem with secret shoppers and can see how it would be smart in this context. I have a problem with the firing contest.

  4. Sabrina*

    Yikes. I drive through Bettendorf a few times a year, won’t be stopping at any QC Marts for gas any time soon.

  5. Confused*

    I think the ‘unemployment discrimination’ is trying to address companies who say they will only hire those who already have jobs. There are a lot of unemployed people unable to get hired because of that. They were laid off, not fired, but still not in the running because they are not employed when they apply.
    Should companies do this, especially these days? No. But there is still a stigma to being unemployed. A company COULD take the time to check if as person was fired or laid off but the blanket statement, ‘only currently employed need apply,’ is probably easier.
    You could argue those are companies you may not want to work for but people need to eat while the economy improves.
    It may not be the perfect solution but it is an attempt at leveling the playing field in the face of discrimination.

  6. LP*

    Allison, I’m curious about your view in relation to the last paragraph – where you say the manager is not doing their job and should be fired. I agree with you here, but was wondering what advice you might offer to a manager in this situation? Starting out as a manager in this environment can be difficult. You’re walking in to a workplace where the current culture is staff slacking off, not following rules and not being treated well by management. I’ve worked at somewhere like this before (only as the admin, thankfully), and it can be really tough to keep a clear perspective from the inside and figure out what to do to fix the problem – especially if it’s a cultural one and upper management is no help

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