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Execs go incognito to review workplace

Amy Scott Feb 5, 2010

Execs go incognito to review workplace

Amy Scott Feb 5, 2010


KAI RYSSDAL: How many times have you said to yourself, perhaps after an especially stern talking-to from your boss, “Man, if they could only get a taste of what I do every single day out there.” Well, never fear. CBS hears you.

A new reality show premieres Sunday night right after the Super Bowl. “Undercover Boss” will have executives out with front-line workers — bosses from companies like 7-Eleven and Churchill Downs doing entry level jobs trying to find out what’s really going on. And did I mention they’re going to be incognito, too?

Our New York bureau chief Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: I’ll admit there’s something gratifying about seeing the president of a Fortune 500 company cleaning Porta-Potties.

Larry O’Donnell as “Randy Lawrence”: Is there a technique I use or I just stick this baby in there?

Waste Management employee: Yeah, push it in there.

O’Donnell: Like that? Mix it up nice.

Employee: Yeah, mix it up nice.

That’s Larry O’Donnell, president and chief operating officer of Waste Management. Only on this day he’s pretending to be a guy named Randy Lawrence, who’s filming a show about trying out entry-level jobs.

Employee: Man, you do a good job. I like you.

The real show is “Undercover Boss.” It follows executives from White Castle, 7-Eleven and Hooters as they work alongside the rank and file in their own companies.

The show’s executive producer Stephen Lambert says what they find isn’t all flattering.

Stephen Lambert: The show only works, because we see some of the failings of the company. But then the company, the boss, gets a chance to fix those things.

In the first episode, Waste Management’s Larry O’Donnell hears from one garbage truck driver, who says her schedule is so packed she has to pee in a coffee can.

Janice: You obviously can’t keep breaking off route to go use the restroom. That would add all kinds of time on to the route…

When Janice, the driver, vents about being spied on by her supervisors, O’Donnell realizes it’s his fault.

O’Donnell: I’ve probably been the one at corporate that’s driving productivity, and I feel terrible that I’ve created something that is causing her to not enjoy her job.

After spending time with Janice, the boss makes some changes. He gives drivers more flexibility to take time for bathroom breaks. And he says he’s working with supervisors so that drivers see them as coaches, not spies. O’Donnell says he learned so much from the experience, he’d recommend other bosses try it — even without the cameras.

O’Donnell: Absolutely. Anything that any of us can do to just better understand and open the channels of communication with all levels of the company. It can only be a positive thing.

But going undercover is a risky management strategy.

Matt Paese: I think the biggest risk is the loss of trust.

Matt Paese is with the HR consultancy DDI; one of the companies involved in the show is a client of the firm. Paese says as long as something positive comes of it, employees will probably forgive the deception.

Paese: But to the extent that it’s an inspection with a clipboard and, at worst, an inquisition, I think then you run the risk of just adding insult to injury.

In the show, the workers seem pretty forgiving when they realize they’ve been duped. Many of them walk away with promotions or better working conditions.

Waste Management’s Larry O’Donnell says the experience has changed the way he manages.

O’Donnell: When we do have something that we’re thinking about doing now that is going to have an impact on our front line, if we’re forming a team, we’ll include somebody from the front line to be on that team.

But if the show has changed the way bosses like O’Donnell see their workers, executive producer Stephen Lambert says it may also change the image many workers have of bosses.

Lambert: The financial crisis and the recession has been tough for so many people. And I think there’s been quite a lot of disillusionment about bosses in America. So I think there’s an appetite and an interest to see how it could be otherwise, to see bosses trying to understand what’s going on in the front line and trying to find those unsung heroes that deserve recognition.

After this first crop of undercover executives, Lambert has ideas for a second season. So how about it, boss?

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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