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Compliance… August 20, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Employment Rights, Gender Issues.

There’s not a lot that genuinely leaves me open mouthed, but this does. A film has been made of the ordeal suffered by a McDonald’s employee after a prank phone call purporting to be from a police officer, an ordeal that included physical and sexual assault and long lasting trauma.

I have to note as well the gendered aspects of this. In the series of so-called ‘prank calls’ those who were assaulted in this way (and to my mind it is an assault) were female. That is telling in and of itself in terms of the demands placed and the expectations of those who they were placed upon in terms of unable to seek support or expect any to be forthcoming. And indeed in terms of what was thought appropriate on the part of those who colluded whether willingly or otherwise in these events.

Then there’s the issue of authority whether seen or unseen. Those who were involved did so at the behest of a supposed police officer. That too is replete with various expectations, meanings and obeisance to power (scroll down the comments here for some disturbing but not unexpected anecdotes about abuses of power, sexual humiliation and gender). There’s more in terms of how some of those who were involved colluded with the person who made the original call. For them it appears that this was all the excuse they needed to act in truly vile ways however patently absurd the actions they were ordered to undertake.

As I’ve noted previously, workplaces are often run in incredibly dictatorial and unthinking ways where those in management and above are gifted extraordinary latitude. I’ve never seen a range of behaviours as bad as those described here, but I’ve seen pretty bad behaviours from management and bosses, bullying, insults, abuse of power. And what’s telling is how often this is rationalised – a few weeks ago I was discussing the issue of overtime. I’ve seen excessive demands put upon workers time and again. And the stick is not that hard to find.

In the real life incident as Slate notes:

If you’ve watched the 20/20 interview with the real-life Becky, Louise Ogborn—along with the accompanying surveillance footage—you know that the movie is no fantasy. Ogborn says that she begged her supervisor to let her go to the police station instead of submit to a strip search, but that she was ignored—and that ultimately she feared losing her job. When asked why she never tried to run away, she said, “I wanted to so bad,” but “I couldn’t bring myself to humiliate myself worse than I already was.”

That’s an extreme – the fear of losing a job leading even in the face of such egregious demands, but it is an extreme on a continuum of behaviours that almost all of us will be able to identify. And it is notable that in the court case subsequently taken by Ogborn – the worker who was the victim of this assault – against McDonalds, the company argued as part of its defence that ‘(4) the victim did not remove herself from the situation, contrary to common sense’.

Any of us who have any experience of low wage jobs will know the hollowness of that particular observation.

And the point is that whether at the hands of a sociopath who would make such a call, or management who would comply with such calls or more generally in profoundly negative work places there’s something about an area that given its centrality to our daily lives is curiously under thought through and which in some respects remains a realm apart where we must go, some of us at least, with no guarantee that the manner in which we are treated conforms with even minimal standards of human interaction.

In an age of austerity you can bet it isn’t getting any better either.


1. dmfod - August 20, 2012

Horrible. It’s not that surprising the women staff were more compliant than the male employees, as this is famously why sweatshops prefer women as they are more socially conditioned to compliance even outside the workplace. In the US TV coverage when she was asked why she didn’t refuse to comply, the victim said her parents had always taught her to do what adults said and not to ask questions and that she trusted her manager because ‘a manager’s job is to look after you’ !! Pretty appalling parenting – the one thing I’m going to impress on my kids is a healthy suspicion of authority (apart from me of course!).

The victim also said the reason she didn’t run out of the room where she was being assaulted was she was too embarrassed to run through the restaurant semi-naked i.e. at the time the fear of public exposure seemed worse to her than actually being assaulted. This seems to be a factor in some sexual abuse cases as well where the perpetrator will use the victim’s fear of social humiliation to his advantage in keeping things secret.

Having said all that, I feel really uneasy about this having been made into a film and showing CCTV of it on TV/the internet as the creep who made the call, who has never been punished, will be getting off on his success even more that now he can actually watch the consequences over and over again, as well as hearing them over the phone at the time. It also makes everyone who watches it a kind of voyeur too and however tastefully it’s filmed, you’d have to wonder if the male director, and a lot of viewers, didn’t find something titillating about it on some level.

A final thing that occurred to me is whether US workforces are more compliant than they would be in Ireland? I noticed a big difference in attitudes towards authority between working in fairly menial jobs in America (and Australia as well) and here, in both unionised and non-unionised jobs. In America and Australia there was more unquestioning obedience to management and stuff like snitching and doing the managers’ job for them by bossing around others off their own bat, whereas here people had more of an ‘us against the manager’ attitude.


WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2012

I’ve seen that too in jobs in the US as against here. Telling.

Re your point as regards voyeurism, it’s certainly a film I’d probably not watch, and yet for all the dangers – and according to Slate and other outlets it is filmed in a sensitive and as respectful a way as possible – I can’t help but think that if it causes at least a few people to question the power relationships at work then it has some value.

+1 re healthy suspicion of authority.


2. dmfod - August 20, 2012

The film is made from that angle but the 60 minutes show not so much . A lot of comment I’ve read it online also seems to be more ‘how could these people be so stupid?’, rather than asking questions about the nature of authority in the workplace or more generally. In some ways it can even feed into snobbery that people working in these kinds of jobs are idiots.

Ironically, McDonalds’ response was to train staff what to do in this kind of situation, so in future they can follow orders not to follow orders from prank callers pretending to be police. And the manager got half a million in compensation because she hadn’t been warned by McDonalds about the prank or trained what to do! The alternative of workplaces not being full of fear, loathing and unquestioning obedience doesn’t seem to get a look in.


WorldbyStorm - August 20, 2012

I saw comments like that re ‘stupidity’ and that too was really upsetting, it’s like those saying it just don’t get how crap workplaces can be and how afraid in some instances workers can be of authority or presumed authority figures.

I don’t want to be glib but if ever there was an example of why unions are necessary to push back those sort of power relations or even at the most insipid at least offer an alternative line of communication this surely is it?


Ivorthorne - August 21, 2012

Philip Zimbardo covers this case in ‘The Lucifer Effect’. He positions it within the context of Nazi war crimes, the Stanford Prison Experiment and abuses in Iraq.

Well worth a read.


3. c macnally - January 11, 2013

You could torture me, regardless of any position of authority, and I would NEVER sexually abuse another person. I could possibly understand months of brain washing and coercion breaking you down to do dreadful things… but a few hours on a Friday night (with a voice on the phone) turns me into a monster???
In such a scenario, I would gladly go to jail and get a criminal record for not co-operating with police! What’s going to happen to me? Get charged with refusing to de-humanize a young woman? This girl is not responsible for the situation. PERIOD. There’s a huge gap in age and life-experience between herself and the others involved. Even the manager can hide in the grey area surrounding this but what man could come into the picture and truly believe this was authentic? What kind of person wouldn’t hang up and verify the situation before complying beyond their conscience. I think you can get as clever as you want with psychological studies but my speculation is this; if you find yourself involved in a situation that is so clearly suspicious, and you’ve acted with poor judgement, there has to be a point where this tries to enter your conscious mind.
How about someone does a study on how many people keep going because it might be their only defence? When it dawns on you, isn’t it in your best interest to continue playing along?…’I was just following orders’. We always want to isolate a situation to study how it evolves but how could that ever be possible? It’s an artificial, over-simplified approach.
THE most VILE thing about this whole assault, is a website that has posted the unedited video!!!!! I will not mention the website NOR did I care to watch it… what kind of person would? I think the answer is this; the kind of person who could have been dragged into a crime like this in the first place!
To think this girl went through such a mind@%&$ and is now being violated all over again online makes me despair of the world.


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