Sunday, November 27, 2005

Obedient Employees Fall Victim to Hoax

Last year I wrote about corporate prank email and the hoax that was successfully perpetrated on a Starbuck's Human Resources assistant. The prankster, Shizzy Joyce, pretended to be the President of Starbucks and asked the HR assistant to do a number of unusual tasks such as spying on the head of HR and firing the "fat girl."

As bad as this was, it pales in comparison to the trick (crime) that has been played on employees at McDonald's and other quick-serve restaurants. The following is not for the faint at heart so read at your own risk. If you can bear it, there is an important lesson to help protect your employees.

According to reports, a man claiming to be "Officer Scott" made calls to fast food restaurants pretending to be a police officer. He would speak to the assistant manager and report that one of the employees had been suspected of theft and needed to be searched. The caller would then stay on the phone and talk the manager through an elaborate routine of bringing the suspect employee into the back room, ordering the employee to remove her clothes and continuing with hours (yes, hours) of humiliating acts. A detailed account of this happening in a Kentucky McDonald's to high school senior, $6.35-an-hour employee, Louise Ogborn, was reported in the Courier-Journal in October of this year.

Anyone familiar with Dr. Stanley Milgram's social psychology experiments on obedience will not find it hard to believe that normally law abiding citizens would behave in unbelievable ways when told to by a seeming authority. (If you are interested in this subject, check your library for The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. Great biography. Very detailed look at Milgram's experiments.)

From a Human Resources perspective, we need to be sure we are protecting our employees. In the McDonald's situation, the hoax had been carried out a number of times at various restaurant locations prior to the Ogborn case. According to the referenced article, company executives notified owners and operators of the hoaxes. "It appears the information is not reaching our restaurant staff," said Michael Peaster, global security director. In fact just a week before the Ogborn incident, a 10-15 second voice message was sent to every store in the region about the hoaxes. The store manager, however, said in her deposition that the message did not mention strip-searches.

Although we can spend a lot of time gasping on how this could happen, we also have to focus on how this could have been prevented. It brings to light the importance of a robust communication system. We need to make sure we are able to effectively reach all levels of employees with important and timely information not just executives and managers. One can make a strong case (and they are doing this in court against McDonald's) that if the employees were clearly aware of this prank having happened previously, they would have hung up on the caller or called the police instead of getting caught up in perpetrating the caller's crime.

Additionally we need to look at better training. The article points out that employees in these work environments are trained to follow orders. Perhaps we need to make sure that employees are not only following orders but are also encouraged to think for themselves and apply good sense when unusual circumstances occur.

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