March 18, 2014

Corporate inability to discriminate

Last night I had nothing to eat in the house, and I hadn't eaten in eight hours (and then, not that much). So I walked over to the nearest McDonald's, where the drive-thru is open 24 hours. Shouldn't matter if I don't show up in a car, right?

Well, the cashier pokes his head out of the window while serving the truck ahead of me, looks over, and asks if he can help me. "Can I help you?" = Go away. I asked if I could still order without being in a car, and he said he couldn't do it. When I pressed him politely, he said he got yelled at by his manager the last time.

There was no one behind me, I was not dressed like a bum, I would have gotten off their property after ordering, etc. And of course they would have made a little profit off of the order. Multiply that by all the other normal people who would patronize the drive-thru window on foot, and that's a decent chunk of change they're leaving sit on the table. They're already open, business is always slow during the late hours, so what gives?

They clearly have some kind of policy, since the guy's manager is strictly enforcing it. Presumably that comes from higher up the chain of command. Who knows what the reasoning is — perhaps keeping away bums, robbers, and so on? The point is: it's obvious I am not one of those people, so let me order my damn bacon McDoubles and give you money.

Or maybe the goal is to avoid lawsuits if I got hit — except that there were no cars behind me, or even in sight pulling into the parking lot. Just the truck ahead of me, which I stood a good several feet behind. How could I sue for getting hit by a ghost car?

No matter what hypothetical reasons are given, none applied in this concrete case. This silly example nevertheless reveals something rotten about the mega-corporate model — the inability of any of the workers, from top to bottom, to use their brain and discriminate.

Like, "Yeah, we don't want drugged-out bums or robber-looking dudes showing up, but you look fine." (And anyway, what's to stop a robber from showing up to the window in a getaway car?) Or "Well, normally we don't want people standing in between a line of cars with impatient drivers, but since there's no cars behind you, I guess it's OK."

Corporations instead insist on a culture of law — given how enormous and broadly distributed they are, and how top-down in command structure, their efficiency would get thrown off if every actor were allowed to pause, reflect, and discriminate based on what his local concrete circumstances appeared to warrant. Rather, the decisions are codified in an explicit set of rules or laws that applies to abstract categories of people — if the customer arrives in a car, let him order; if not, turn him away. That must be where the profit-left-on-the-table is made up for — this petty legalism is what allows the whole mega-corporate machine to operate in the first place.

I don't care what is the most rational or profit-maximizing way for McDonald's to run its business. I don't own any stock in the company, and don't know anybody who works there, depending on them for their welfare. But I do resent being treated like some formless representative of an abstract category (the customer). And the more that large top-down corporations take over the industries that serve us in one way or another, the more we can expect to get disrespected by some pantywaist who says he's just following the rules he's given.

You hear rationalizations like, "If we let you order here, we'd have to let everybody order here." Why? Are you completely blind, where every customer appears equally risky, despite you knowing that most are safe and only some are dangerous? I don't care where you set your threshold for "this customer appears too sketchy to allow to get close," but it sure as hell ain't going to include me, or most folks. That's paranoid and disrespectful. Judge me like a particular human being, not some abstract type that you can discover no information about.

Use your brain, not your mind.

Everyone knows how dehumanizing it becomes for workers within a corporation after awhile. This is different, and worse: they take the same clueless, legalistic approach with their customers too. Taking into account all corporations, and looking at both workers and customers, that's... uh, just about everybody who's affected.

And no, I didn't go all Falling Down on the McDonald's cashier. Felt like it would've been pointless with no one around to hear it and agree.


  1. I walked through the drive through of my local Mcdonald's last month because their queue management system was broken so they were only taking drive through orders. No problem. I live in Australia.

  2. Contaminated NEET3/18/14, 5:21 AM

    They fear lawsuits from customers getting hit by cars. Every fast food place I know has had a no pedestrians in the drive-through policy for years. Who's got the deeper pockets: some random motorist who wasn't paying attention, or McDonald's, who allowed the "unsafe" situation to arise?

    They can't allow employees to use their judgment, because sometimes that judgment is going to be wrong, and then they're on the hook. This is a huge problem with laws, and "policies," and rules in general, but like you said, it's unavoidable if you want to organize people on a large scale. My question is: why wasn't this always the drive-through policy (and why isn't it in Australia right now)? Answer that, and you might get closer to a solution.

  3. I sometimes wonder what they do allow. Bicycle? How about a children's tricycle? Wheelchair? One of those motorized scooters so popular with the People of Wal-Mart?

  4. I think "If we let you order here, we'd have to let everybody order here." is the problem. No discrimination in public places (excelent description here ) brings us to these kinds of absurdities. For example in France in some village I was refused service because the old witch at the bar thought I wasn't polite enough. It's common enough that nobody at the bar battered an eyelash.

  5. I experienced the same thing on my bike. I asked why not and got the impression that there are actual laws forbidding it. Of course, it was a while back.

  6. Two causes: One is lawyers twisting the tort liability system beyond any recognition -- that urban legend about the hot coffee from McDonalds, and how the cups now warn you that, duh, coffee is hot (and frankly I'm surprised they don't have to put the warnings on in Braille and in pictograms for their sight-impaired and subliterate customers).

    The other, related, is "rayciss," which is not unrelated to the problem of lawyers, including a large posse of them employed by the government to root out all vestiges of racism from our society. It's no secret who's going to fall disproportionately below the "too sketchy to serve" line. What is McD's supposed to do, let the black employees use discretion to tell the sketchy people to get lost, but not the white employees (because rayciss)? Then the white employee sues the company for depriving him of the discretion that he would've exercised to prevent the horrific armed robbery that left him paralyzed. Let all the employees use their brains? Then a black Harvard Law student puts on his best ghetto mufti, gets turned away by a snotty 17-year-old white kid, and ka-pow, it's just like that lunch counter in Birmingham, nationwide class action, resolved with truckloads of cash and a consent decree, and we're back where we started from.

    This is why I am the Lawyer-Hating Lawyer.

    --Signed, L-H L.

  7. The reason is that their liability insurance does not cover pedestrians or bicyclists in drive-thru.

  8. you're too smart to go to mcdonalds, come on.

  9. Low-crime produces poor poor judgement. When there are criminals running around, you have to see past superficial appearance and figure out who's trustworthy and who's not.

  10. "you're too smart to go to mcdonalds, come on."

    What else is open at midnight? And those bacon McDoubles (with no bun) are a way better deal than most other places. Only $2 for two beef patties, cheese, and a boatload of bacon -- they don't gyp you on that.

  11. First one: it's easier to rob a place on foot through the DT window than in a car. One can elevate through the window. Some places have large enough ones to facilitate that.

    Second: local higher-end burger joint is licensed for alcohol. My boss takes us there for Christmas party. He got id'ed at counter. He's also 6'2, late 40s-early 50s, S&P stubble. ID. I come up to counter: 6'1, 205lb male, stubble, flecks of white. ID. They completely took any option for the cashier to assess whether someone might be over 18.

  12. theo the kraut3/19/14, 4:35 AM

    You might want to change some legislation so you get to disembowel 50% of your lawyers. At least you should be allowed to kill them somehow, maybe throw them off a cliff or ferment them as biofuel. Afterwards US McD might take it easier.

  13. I came across this blog by accident. It is truly astonishing how much pessimism and whining can go into each article. I hope that at some point the author will understand his/her lack of knowledge regarding economics, business and human psychology. At any rate, this individual could find it beneficial to seek professional help. I do not mean to say that this person is mentally ill or psychologically unstable. It seems as though the current lens of the author is blind to true joy and acceptance.

    “To realize that you do not understand is a virtue; not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.”

    I hope you find your way.


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