They were incidents of “colossal stupidity.”
For a period of 10 years, over 70 of these incidents occurred. They were reported in 30 states all over the United States. These were discovered only after the first arrest was made in 2004.
According to reports, the managers and supervisors involved all received a call from a “police officer.” Without verifying the caller’s identity, they were convinced to conduct searches on female employees. The employees were asked to strip. Upon the orders of the “police officer,” they unwillingly complied and subjected themselves to lewd acts. Most of the calls were placed to fast food restaurants located in rural areas.
This series of strip search phone scams was the subject of the film Compliance. One film critic opined that it was “ . . . a very difficult viewing experience. Whether the end result was fury, sadness, curiosity or frustration, the film moved everyone in the audience.”
During its premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, an air of uneasiness permeated the entire theater. Groans of exasperation could be heard from the viewers. When the end credits started to roll, the audience erupted in chaos.
Recently, the film was shown to students. The reactions were no different. The frustration was unanimous, “How can people be so stupid?”
The fast food industry requires maximum use of unskilled workers who could perform with limited training. The work procedures and technology are designed for this purpose. The only choice available for the worker is to operate exactly as the designers intended.
In “Making Fast Food: From the Frying Pan into the Fryer,” Canadian sociologist Ester Reiter concludes that the most desirable trait of workers in the fast food industry is obedience. An investigator of the strip search phone scam quipped, “You and I can sit here and judge these people and say they were blooming idiots. But they aren’t trained to use common sense. They are trained to say and think, ‘Can I help you?’”
The comparison to the famous Milgram experiments was inevitable. Initiated in 1961, the experiments measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure, whose instructions conflict with their personal conscience. The results seemed to conclude that “it is human nature to obey orders, regardless of how evil they may seem.” They demonstrated how, by accepting another person’s authority, one becomes a different person. The only concern is how well one follows the order, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.
However, there is bias in using the Milgram experiments to explain the behavior of the managers and supervisors. By going along with the caller who posed as a “police officer”, they are not absolved of their responsibility. The lesser-known results of the experiments revealed that a third of the participants refused to follow orders from an “authority.”
One student wrote, “At the end of the day, we make our own choices. We choose to obey because we were brought up to think that obedience is good or choose to disobey because the orders do not seem right . . . We always, always have a choice.”
The managers may not be the culprit, but they “still had the responsibility to use common sense and avoid falling prey to such a scam.”
Real Carpio So lectures on strategic and human resource management at the graduate and undergraduate levels of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.