Marketplace Scratch Pad

Undercover Boss

Scott Jagow Feb 16, 2010

I can’t decide what to make of the new reality show, Undercover Boss, on CBS. It’s like a lot of reality TV in that you don’t know what to trust as you’re watching it. You have this feeling you’re being played, but there’s also a sense that it might provide “real” value in addressing the disconnect between management and the labor force.

I imagine you’ve either heard about the show or seen it, but the premise is that top executives of major companies spend a week working “undercover” as employees. In the first episode, the president of Waste Management picks up trash, cleans portable toilets and sorts recyclables. At these jobs, he meets blue-collar employees who face various hardships that he acknowledges may be a direct result of his white-collar decisions.

For example, a garbage truck driver says she sometimes pees in a can because her required schedule of pick-ups doesn’t allow her time for bathroom breaks. President Larry O’Donnell seems genuinely shocked and upset by the unintended consequences of the company’s policies. He says he never even thought about it.

At the end of the show, he reveals his true identity to the employees and tells them he’s gained a new appreciation for the difficulties they face. He vows to make changes and offers each employee some sort of reward — in one case, a promotion.

Here are some clips from that show:

In the second episode, the CEO of Hooters goes undercover at several of his franchise locations. It sounds as thought he has rarely been out of his corporate office, so it’s another eye-opening experience. At one location, he witnesses a manager forcing his “Hooter girls” to stuff their faces with beans before they can leave for the day. It’s in this trailer for the show:

The manager is reprimanded for degrading his employees but amazingly keeps his job. Since it’s a franchise system, the CEO may technically not have the authority to fire the manager, but I’m sure he could make it happen if he really wanted to. Regardless, I doubt the show swayed anyone’s opinion for or against Hooters.

But Undercover Boss is clearly striking a chord with some people at a time when there’s so much attention focused on the yawning gap between company executives and their employees. There’s a lot of Internet discussion about the show — some celebrating its “refreshing” nature, others cynically denouncing it. The LA Times may have hit the nail on the head:

… it’s one thing to be genuinely touched and another to be assaulted by emotional cues until you are left with the regrettable choice of either surrendering and feeling exploited or expressing your disgust and feeling mean.

More than that, “Undercover Boss,” though perhaps unintentionally, reinforces the very premise it hopes to shatter. The show ends with O’Donnell solving some of the problems he witnessed — the multi-tasking mom gets a much deserved raise and promotion, the worker with the kidney problems becomes a company healthcare consultant, the friendly garbage truck driver is working to make life a little easier for female employees. All of which is admirable.

But the message is troubling nonetheless. Just diligently doing your tedious/dangerous/difficult job isn’t enough. Even among waste management workers, you have to have something extra to be treated fairly, something that makes the boss notice you. Something that gets you on TV.

And TV isn’t the real world, no matter how hard it tries to convince us otherwise. But after watching the first two episodes, I’m not ready to dismiss Undercover Boss as useless manipulation. Not yet, anyway.

If you’ve seen the show, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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