the art of malicious compliance • The Register

the art of malicious compliance • The Register


Who, Me? Ah, gentle reader, welcome back once again to the comfortable backwater of The Register we call Who, Me? in which readers’ tales of not-quite-rightness are immortalized for the ages.

This week we meet “Steve” (not his real name) who was in the US Air Force in the mid-1970s. As he was engaged to be married and base accommodation was unavailable, he took a second job to supplement his military income so he could afford an apartment. So far it’s a story as wholesome and American as apple pie.

The job Steve took was with a major furniture retailer – because a young family moving into a new apartment needs furniture and a staff discount comes in handy. Pop some ice cream on that pie there. We’re in Norman Rockwell country.

Now, as for the job itself, Steve was in the “salesman support/office/data processing section.” The computer system in use at the time was an IBM system 3, with tub files of 96-hole punch cards for sales order processing, inventory management, and reporting. Steve tells us “the punch cards were kept with the sales orders until order completion/delivery, or pickup, with some orders awaiting on-order inventory for later pickup.”

Now as you may imagine, Steve was a computer guy, and found the paper-handling side of the job a necessary burden next to the computing aspect. Nonetheless, as an enlisted military man, he did his duties. To. The. Letter.

One evening, the manager tasked Steve with filing all of the completed orders from the outlying stores. The manager said this was to be done “by customer name, by first name.”

Deep down inside, Steve kind of knew that what the manager meant that they were to be alphabetized by the customers’ last name, and then by first name. Deep down. Deeeeep.

But that’s not what was asked, was it? “As a conscientious worker,” Steve says, “I repeated the instruction: to file the orders by first name.”

The manager confirmed: “Yes.”

And again, because Steve was so conscientious and you know in the military that orders have to be carried out just right, he repeated “You want all of the orders filed by first name, is this correct?”

And again, “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

One final time: “Yes.”

So there could not possibly be any ambiguity. Steve carried out his appointed task with the efficiency and accuracy you would expect from a member of the United States Air Force.

The following evening, the manager was puzzled. “What the hell did you do with the files,” he asked. “It took two people the entire day to go back through the misfiled orders to refile them.”

“Well,” Steve pointed out, “all of the orders were filed by first name, as requested.” He even confirmed with the boss that he had checked multiple times that this was the instruction.

As the manager had to admit (grudgingly) that he had indeed given bad instructions, there were no repercussions to Steve’s career. Indeed he got a bonus: he was never asked to do that filing again.

Ah, malicious compliance. Is there anything better? You tell us: have you ever done exactly as asked, even when you knew the instructions were bad? Tell us all about it in an email to Who, Me? and we’ll tell the world all about it. ®

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