back to article 'Boss from hell' knuckle-rapped for 'firing contests'

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 …


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  1. Synja

    It may be distasteful...

    but I'm not sure whether it would constitute a hostile work environment. That would be the closest applicable issue for this. Bad management and/or idiocy is not a crime.

    Employees are being fired for breaking the rules they agreed to follow. From what I've read, these are not even obscure or unusual rules. Not talking on your cell phone while violating the dress code seems fairly clear cut.

    Maybe the problem is that they are technically gambling?

    1. Head


      Way to miss the point of the boss being a dickhead

    2. Daniel B.

      Betting on who's going to get sacked is definitely a hostile environment. You're encouraging your workers to sabotage their target coworker so that you earn your measly $10.

      I wouldn't quit, I would sue that jackass for as much as the law would allow me... and I would win!

      1. johnwerneken

        no way would you win.

    3. semprance
      Thumb Down

      Actually ...

      Ernst is gambling. They're only gambling if they take the bet ...

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "Bad management and/or idiocy is not a crime."

      Spoken like a true wannabe manager.

    5. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      "idiocy is not a crime"

      It may not ever have been written down, but I suspect that a careful reading of history would show that *beligerent* idiocy is indeed a crime in every human society, punishable by "whatever they can make stick".

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      These people are probably close to making minimum wage. Realistically, if I were making that much an hour, I doubt I'd care to follow excessive micro-managing of my life. They were convenience store employees. That means as an employer, you should expect them to come to work clean, wearing clean clothes in decent condition and showing up on time. You don't want an attitude, then pay them more because they deal with the public. They understand the system of 'you aren't worth paying above what we can legally get away with' and will give what they are payed for. If you treat your employees fairly and equally, most will put some effort into the job. I've quit a higher paying job to work for the competition at a lower amount because I didn't have to worry about back-stabbers at the new job.

      I'd bet that almost on one would like having their job held over their head when they have bills to pay and need place to eat, sleap and live.

      It is one thing to pay minimum pay for no-brainer work, it's another to treat people so disrespectfully. This guy's problem was not about firing people for not following rules.

    7. mjwalshe

      acutualy being tstupid is no defence

      if a manger stipidly descriminates it still an offence (probably a more severe one)

    8. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Commentards arise!

      I have to say the replies to this post show Reg readers in fine form. You ask a technical question, while implying that you agree with the sentiment of the article - and the local idiots take you to task for ... what? Not believing that being an ass is against the law?

      Now, I do believe that under US law it's reasonable to find that Ernst's actions constituted a hostile work environment, and I agree with Ackerman's decision. But it's hardly prima facie. In fact, it's an important test case for US labor law: at what point does obnoxious behavior by a supervisor support a valid claim of workplace hostility?

      And to respond to Synja's question: it's not the firings, or the question of dismissal for cause, that constitutes the hostile work environment. It's how Ernst trumpeted them in front of employees. Ackerman presumably (I haven't read the decision) found either that that created an oppressive atmosphere, or constituted an attempt to get employees to voluntarily leave in order to avoid firing them and consequently having to pay unemployment. Ernst's contest seems too undirected (ie, it didn't target a specific employee) for it to be the latter, but that's just a guess.

  2. Joe Zeff

    Why not hats?

    I think I know why that guy outlawed hats on the job: he couldn't find one that fit properly over his pointy hair.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. paulll Bronze badge
    IT Angle

    Is the IT angle the obvious comparison with Steve Jobs?

    1. Ted Treen

      Steve Jobs hasn't - to the best of my knowledge - performed monkey-boy dances, or hurled furniture around his office.

      Don't try to squeeze your irrational prejudice into a case where it doesn't fit...

      1. Dave Cradle

        A bit up your own

        I don't see any mention of monkey dances or hurling furniture in the article.

        So which of your own irrational prejudices are you trying to squeeze in here?

      2. paulll Bronze badge


        "Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known for his obsessive attention to detail and iron-fisted management style. He is often accused of making his subordinates cry and firing employees arbitrarily" -Forbes magazine

        Unlike your itarded rambling presumably about Steve Ballmer (famous nutjob, not famous bully), that would seem to fit quite squarely with the article's content. I can't imagine I'm alone in that when presented with, 'Bully' and, 'IT,' I immediately think Steve Jobs. Bob Cringely's 'Accidental Empires' will put you right.

  5. Old Handle

    No one said it was a crime. Nor did they say Mike Miller should get his job back. The issue was whether some other employees who quit were eligible for unemployment compensation, which generally people who quit are not. But the court ruled that the boss's conduct was so egregious that he basically gave them no choice but to quit, so they do get benefits.

    For those unfamiliar with this system, employers don't have to pay this directly, but all employers have to pay for unemployment insurance (a tax really), and if too many of their employees end up out of work and collecting unemployment compensation, it will make their rate go up.

    1. Richie Hindle


      Thanks for the explanation!

    2. Anonymous IV
      Thumb Up

      Another case of meaning reversal

      Egregious used to mean "remarkably good", but now means "outstandingly bad; shocking".


  6. Arctic fox

    It has often been suggested that careers in management tend to...........

    ............attract sociopaths. If one needed any confirmation that that hypothesis has something going for it, this report would provide it. If it were legally possible the judge should have remanded that sucker for psychiatric evaluation before delivering the judgement. Some of these bosses should definitely be amongst the first up against a wall when the ect ect......

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      not sure if

      my wife would have something to say to that, let me find out, I'll forward this message to her and let's see what happens...


      oh, she says she's already got the ip of "that person" and please kiss the kids g'night from mummy, she might be a bit late home from work. Again.

    2. Jonathan Richards 1

      ect ect?

      ITYM etc. etc. Short for et cetera (Lat., and so on), hence the other abbreviation &c, since the ampersand began life as a single character incorporating an E and a t.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        &c &c?

        Except &c is only used by those pretentious hipster types who've spotted it in a 19th century journal or book, and henceforth decided to use it in preference to the etc they grew up using 'cos it's archaic and less popular, and therefore vastly more quirky and indicative of their assumed erudition...

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    He will be welcome in the UK

    I know a couple of people like that. In fact, I have been on the receiving end of more than one person like that. They all got promotions to CXX positions.

    All I can say is that he was simply in the wrong country. In the UK he would have been cherished and promoted by management.

    1. auburnman

      Up until the press got hold of it, then the company would sacrifice him to the gods of Public Relations.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > I have been on the receiving end of more than one person like that.

      Multiple bosses have had issues with your behaviour. Have you considered that it might possibly be your behaviour that is at fault? Perhaps it really is a bad idea to spend most of the day texting and talking on your mobile instead of working.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Bosses like this are common in small companies

        The attitude that I am the boss you are the peon is very common in the workplace. Small companies are the worse. They are exempt from the Federal Employment laws. Even in big companies as long as the division is making money the manager is basically untouchable as long as he hides behind the " business needs, manager discretion" safety net.

        They can be just as bad as this boss and much more creative.

        AC for obvious reasons.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      AC @0639: They all got promotions to CXX positions.

      Became C++ programmers?

  8. Jacob Lipman

    Iowa is unusually liberal for a midwestern state, and their courts often take the worker's side in disputes like these. The "hostile work environment" doctrine is a tough one to really define. Basically, if a worker feels that the work environment is hostile, it is - this is mitigated somewhat by judges throwing out absurd cases. This one is borderline, definitely arguable either way. The boss was enough of an asshat that I personally would feel harassed by his conduct, and think most workers would. If you feel on a daily basis that your job is at risk because you fear an "attack" from your boss, including, as demonstrated by the email, the potential public humiliation of the boss gloating about having fired you, it is entirely reasonable to feel that you are in a hostile work environment.

    The WTF icon because it is baffling to see an evidently successful business person who believes that this sort of sociopathic behavior is rational.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Jacob Lipman

      "The WTF icon because it is baffling to see an evidently successful business person who believes that this sort of sociopathic behavior is rational."

      Who said anything about rational?

      Although from his PoV it was certainly "fun".

      1. Jacob Lipman


        People who do things the rest of us see as evil rarely see it in the same light - I have no doubt that this man rationalizes his own behavior. Mr. Hitler did not think he was an evil man. He rationalized what is widely seen as the most horrific crime ever committed against humanity. Compared to a brutal genocide perpetrated over the course of many years, "being a dick to some employees" should be rather easy to rationalize.

        P.S., since no comparison was made to another commenter, does this qualify as an invocation of Godwin's Law?

  9. Richard 81

    "Ernst contested the claim"

    "When they applied for unemployment benefits, Ernst contested the claim, saying that since the resignations were voluntary, unemployment was not justified."

    Are you telling me that in the US a former employer can potentially block a unemployment benefit claim? Seriously?!?

    1. Hud Dunlap


      Unemployment is an insurance policy, not a right. You can't just quit and get unemployment nor can you be fired for cause and still get it.

      There is the legal concept that an environment can be so hostile as to be tantamount to firing without cause. Such as this case.

      1. IT veteran

        Constructive Dismissal

        This sounds like Constructive Dismissal in the UK - normally you don't get JSA (unemployment benefit) for 6 months if you resign, but you can claim Constructive Dismissal. But its very hard to prove.

        1. Chika
          Big Brother

          Very true, which is one of the weapons used by a certain breed of manager that is usually brought in by companies or other employers (public services are certainly fond of this one) that do this sort of thing to try to cut workforces without having to stump up. Eventually they move on, usually before the employer notices what is actually happening or when the manager makes one too many decisions that cause direct problems for the people under him, just as with this report.

          My concern is that not enough is done to highlight these corporate bullies (for that is what they actually are). The only difference here is that the manager in question got too cocky and underestimated what his workforce would do if pushed too far.

    2. johnwerneken

      of course the claim can be blocked. most of those discharged are ether not needed, which justifies benefit, or unsuitable, which doesnot.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Been there

    Sounds like a boss I had once, who didn't have the power to just fire people but took extreme sadistic pleasure in not only setting his own staff against each other, but even better if you could dish dirt on others in "enemy" teams to get them in trouble. If you got caught in trouble for absolutely anything even if you weren't playing the pathetic games he wanted, he would simply deny any knowledge and leave you to squirm while someone else had a go at you. When he did lower himself to rescue someone from trouble, he would make sure they owed him big for it.

    I refused to play, suffered minor depression, almost split up with my wife and contemplated suicide, until one day I just got up, walked into work and handed my notice after 2 years of it.

    You're probably asking why did I stay all that time? I must have been stupid to put up with it. Well, I was brought up to work hard, never quit a job, if you do it's a sign of failure. I had my wife to look after, the mortgage to pay, you spend so much time worrying about the job you don't see clearly and you don't think there's any way out. I was lucky I had a moment of clarity before it was too late.

    Scumbags like this are all around, look after yourself and look for the signs. I now have the attitude I should have had long ago, it's just a job. I do my job to the best of my ability and I plan what I am going to do with my free time when I'm not there. I never want to end up like that again.

    1. Charles Calthrop

      You did the right thing, hope you're doing ok now mate.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Here here. My first job, I didn't know any better. Boss made me keep a log of toilet breaks because when he wanted me urgently one day, I was having a pee. I was singled out for this treatment. He also put up a display of "poor photocopying" in the kitchen, captioned "Waste of money - like *my name*" (the journal in question was over 100 years old, the special to-the-edge photocopier was out of action and I didn't want to break the spine by squashing it onto the flat bed).

      Yes, bad bosses exist; like AC above I had financial commitments, it was a prestigious place I was working in, doing what I wanted to do and I didn't know any better. I do now!

      These guys just waiting for the axe to fall, wielded by a boss who seems to delight in firing people and public humiliation would certainly feel it was a toxic environment. It's constructive dismissal.

    3. BorkedAgain
      Thumb Up

      What Charles said.

      Been there, done that, considered throttling the CEO with the corporate t-shirt.

      You're not unusual; it can take years to realise just how toxic a situation has become. Having realised it, you did exactly the right thing. Nice thing about our industry: there's always another (better) option...

  11. Rameses Niblick the Third (KKWWMT) Silver badge

    Clear money saving policy

    You tell your employees to send in the names of the next person they think will be fired. You count them up, then fire the guy with most "votes", because clearly his co-workers don't like him, and they must have a reason, right?. Small prizes for the correct "guesses" and you don't have to pay fees for secret shoppers. The man is a genius!

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      I had the same thought

      Does that make me a bad person? Am I qualified to be a lunatic manager too?

      I do know someone (names withheld to protect the guilty) who had a boss who used to take people's office chairs away if they didn't sell enough in a month. He also claims the boss got annoyed with one salesman, who was on the phone, and not being pushy enough. So he set some paper alight, and chucked it over his cubicle wall...

      My informant was sent round with the hush money, to avoid the inevitable loss at tribunal (and publicity), and says that his opening gambit was:

      "When Bob set you on fire, he was only trying to communicate with you..."

      1. mjwalshe

        setting employees on fire.

        I think ime on fairly strong grounds her setting people on fire is grounds for constructive dismissal (unless your a stuntman)

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A "slap around the back of the head" for the offending employees...

    That would have been enough, if they did it again a good kicking next time they are around the back in the stores area.

    But sacking was a bit severe.

    One lesson to learn is that the competition should only have been held with other management, not the drones.

    PS Only kidding, had a manager like this in my team, I kicked him out after I caught him assaulting a 16 apprentice, whilst calling him a racist name (above all nice kid actually wanted to learn!). I took great pleasure in leading the manager through our dismissal and disciplinary procedures.

    The workplace is stressful enough these days, without dickheads making it unbearable.

  13. Fab De Marco

    The Key would have been Organisation

    Assuming this is a large chain of convenience stores. Find a Volenteer to be fired.... We'll call him Steve.

    If 100 employees put Steve down as the one to be fired, Steve can then have some fun getting fired and the horrible boss' scheme will have cost him $1000

    Just an idea.

  14. johnwerneken

    US isdoomed

    Weird. Boss offers to pay employees to encourage employees in general to follow normal customer service rules. An environment hostile to those who refuse to attend to customers or to follow company rules results, and some quit. Unemployment rules that they are without work for no fault of their own? This is nuts.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      interesting slant, john, very interesting.

      see also:

      (because I think you may be confused about which planet you are on)

    2. hplasm Silver badge

      Comprehension not your strong point?

      Boss runs contest on 'who will I fire for nothing next' and you don't see a problem with that?

      Amateur troll at best. D-

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Did you even read the article?

      The unemployment benefits were for people who quit because of the hostile work environment (i.e. the boss being a dick) - not the ones that were fired for cause.

  15. Johan Bastiaansen
    Thumb Down

    And Ernst

    What will happen to him now? Wil he be fired? Or will he be encouraged to be a bit more sneaky next time?

    1. Figgus

      It's hard to fire...

      ...the OWNER. Just sayin'.

    2. Alan Dougherty

      Read the first paragraph again.

      He's the owner.

      He can't be fired, as there is no-one in a higher position of authority.

      He can be fined, and publicly shamed; maybe sell the business, but fired, no.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why didn't the employs take him out the back, give him a good hiding and then deny any knowledge of it?

    1. IsJustabloke Silver badge

      I CHOOSE to enoble a simple forum post!

      why stop at a beating they shoulda popped a couple caps in his ass?

      They did *exactly* the right thing because you obvioulsy need it speeling out for you.

  17. Fred Mbogo

    Pah, you lot...

    Don't know why this is so much of an issue.

    After all, this is why they invented the Dimethyl Mercury latte and Ricin-flavored beer.

    Chug heartily boss man!

  18. sisk Silver badge

    Unfortunate truth

    "Do I win a prize for guessing that Mr. Ernst will be the next person to be fired?"

    Unfortunately the owner of a business cannot be easily fired. Too bad.

    I'm really reminded of a guy my wife used to work for. He went out of his way to belittle his employees and said it was because if he were nice to them they wouldn't respect him. It's a good thing she quit when she did because if she'd have come home from work crying one more time he and I would have had to have a 'talk'.

    There really should be something you can do to deal with that kind of boss besides quitting, but when they're the owner there's really nothing to be done about it except get the word out and hope that the public decides not to let such a person have their money.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm working under one of these at the moment. He spreads rumours about people to the other staff, lies about things that people say to try and create tension and simply makes the place unpleasant.

    He's basically out of his depth in the position he's now in (promoted to it from a sys-admin role) and has confused company efficiency with making peoples lives unpleasant.

    It's not the first time I've seen this, where tech skills lead to a promotion into management, and in one hit, you lose teh best IT guy and get a crap manager.

  20. kain preacher Silver badge

    This guy is lucky. We are in a recession and it's not like you can go out and just get a job. Add to that convenience stores have a high rate of getting robbed = high rate of stress . He is lucky some of the fired people did not come back and go postal.

  21. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    These guys are not unlucky. He sounds like one of these.

    Dr Robert Hare is the one of the world experts on spotting and diagnosing these nut jobs.

    First rule. Check anything they say against independent witnesses (and make sure they *are* independent).

    Sadly the only effective treatment for psychopathic managers is only accepted practice in Klingon business schools.

    These characters are great at convincing the boss (the only person they are bothered about) that they are doing a great job, even when the office/dept/company is collapsing around them.

    The myth is that their behavior delivers above average results.

    The reality is its like making someone run faster by being chased by a rabid dog.

    Very few people have the sense or the bravery to just put the dog down.

  22. kain preacher Silver badge

    business school for dicks

    I don't were it came from, but in Americas there is a certain school of thought that says you are not a good boss unless you are an asshole. Being nice means your people are walking all over you. I worked at retail store were the boss was like that. At the time I was 18 and one day I just walked out . He was like well that makes you a piss poor worker. I told him how stupid her was to treat teen ages like that. Lets see no kids no house note no real obligations. Oh yeah teen agers can be impulsive like breaking out the winds in your car. The dick called the cops on me. The cops were not amuse.

  23. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Intersting straw poll results

    On my line about wannabe managers 75% reckoned that sounded like a wannabe manager and the other 25% seemed to think he had a fair point.

    The complaint is not that companies have rules (of varying levels of stupidity) which you agree to follow. It's his *encouragement* of staff to bet on (and possibly influence) other staff to get fired.

    Watch the start of the Shawshank Redemption for a rather similar scenario if you still don't get it.

    You *might* like to consider that large scale IT work is a *team* game and his behavior would be destructive to team cohesion. If you think that playing your staff off against one another is a *good* way to motivate them you probably work for a certain CAD software company of my acquaintance.

    The problem of how to recognize and reward good *technical* staff *is* tricky. The classic way of giving them management tasks and a pay rise (an area they may little or no experience or *interest* in) can turn a 1st rate specialist into a 1st rate d***head.

    Yes that is a copy of "Peopleware" sticking out of my pocket. 25 years later it remains one of the least acted upon most read IT books I know of.

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