The Disturbing Reality of ‘Undercover Boss’

Forget the train wreck of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” Never mind the ridiculousness of “High School Reunion.” The scariest, most disturbing reality show on TV is now “Undercover Boss.”

The show is a ratings hit for CBS. The premise — CEOs go incognito to find out what really happens on the frontlines of their businesses — plays on Americans’ anger at all things corporate and our insatiable voyeuristic tendencies.

According to one recent report, the CEOs who have been through the drill are making significant changes as a result. Waste Management chief Larry O’Donnell has begun getting garbage collectors’ input before implementing new initiatives. 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto beefed up training so store workers wouldn’t consider clerking a dead-end job.

That’s all fine and I’m sure it makes for good television, but several things about “Undercover Boss” disturb me:

  • Employees don’t recognize the CEO of their companies. Granted, many of the businesses featured on the show — Hooters, Churchill Downs, White Tower — aren’t exactly the kinds of places where workers care much about the head honcho. But Southwest Airlines workers knew who Herb Kelleher was and I’ll bet the same was true at McDonalds under Ray Kroc. This says more about the CEOs’ detachment than it says about employees’ apathy. People are more apt to work hard for — and remain loyal to — a company whose CEO is out in front of them.
  • The CEOs act like employee engagement is a new concept. And, unfortunately, it seems to be for the executives featured so far. Come on, people! How many business books, articles, white papers and training programs have addressed the need for business leaders to be in touch with their employees at all levels of the organization? This is not new and there simply is no excuse for a CEO in the 21st century to just now get it.
  • Where are the employee communication or human-resources professionals in all of this? I wonder why many CEOs apparently have not been enlightened to engagement and I suspect it’s because somebody in the organization is not trying hard enough to enlighten them. I know many employee communicators feel they don’t have access to business leaders or feel it is not their place to make such suggestions — but that is exactly what we should be doing. Find a way to make some noise. I worked for 10 years in a manufacturing facility and probably made a nuisance of myself with all the suggestions for ways to get the COO in front of employees. But you know what? It worked. And one particularly hard-boiled COO liked it so much he held several round-table dialogues with employees per week. You just never know until you try.

I know “Undercover Boss,” like all the other reality shows, is more about entertainment than it is about real change. I take the show’s significance with a grain of salt. But if this is representative of most CEOs, then American business is in bigger trouble than I thought.


6 Responses

  1. I think the show makes the CEOs look more detached than they really are, which makes me wonder why they agreed to do the show in the first place. It makes them look clueless to now common employee engagement practices.

    While I enjoyed the first couple episodes, the show has become so scripted. Every episode is exactly the same as the others. They just change the CEO and name of the company. Because all the episodes are so similar, I don’t believe that the content shown is representative of the entire company.

  2. I have not seen the show, but from what you are saying, the CEO’s do not really make that many changes once they are out of the trenches (with some exceptions). It is a ratings ploy and another reality show. Boring.

  3. Robert – if indeed these “undercover boss” holes are as ignorant and detached as the show depicts, I’ll be surprised. In hard times the most “important” things get funding and attention — look at how many employee communication people are out of work in the last couple of years alone.

    Our seeming inability to produce quantifiable business impact (for a reasonable cost) hurts us. The people who could clue-in the bosses are gone – the safe path is to sit down, shut up and be a tactician.

    There are CEOs who aren’t clueless — NYT’s Corner Office on Sundays finds them — but they don’t think of their corporate communicators as business people who use communication as business tool. They see tactical people who consider themselves artists above the demands of business impact.

    😉 Have a great day!

  4. BTW, check out the conversation on CommScrum on the nature and future of internal communicators…

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