If you aren’t watching CBS’s new show Undercover Boss Sunday evenings, you should be. It’s an eye-opener about the kind of cultural disconnects that can develop between an organization’s senior leadership at corporate headquarters and staff on the frontlines.
The outline for the new reality series is simple. Each week a chief executive from a different major corporation leaves the comfort of their corner office to examine the inner workings of their company. The boss goes “undercover,” slipping anonymously into the rank and file of their companies. It’s a little like “secret shopping,” except the CEO does the actual investigative research, not a third-party vendor.
While working alongside their employees, these undercover bosses get an up-close look at what it takes for frontline people to make their company run. Most enlightening, they see the effects their decisions have on others and where problems are lurking within their organizations.
You’d think employees might be suspicious of some random new guy who has an entourage of cameramen in tow. You’d expect staff to be on their best behavior, or at least try hide some of the ugly warts. Wrong.
Reality Check: Employees aren’t bashful with their workplace criticisms and concerns. They’ll talk to anyone who is willing to listen, including you.
In the debut of Undercover Boss, Waste Management President and COO Larry O’Donnell (shown here) poses as “Randy,” training as a new employee to perform low-level jobs like picking up garbage, sorting trash at a recycling facility and scrubbing Port-o-Potties. Practically everywhere that “Randy” goes and almost everyone he talks to, he finds something fascinating, shocking and/or disturbing:
- Waste Management’s garbage truck drivers have to pee in tin cans they carry with them because their routes are so tightly scheduled that there’s no time for potty breaks.
- One person did the work of four employees for no extra pay.
- At one of Waste Management’s facilities, employees are docked two minutes of pay for every extra minute they go past their allotted 30-minute lunch break (which is probably illegal).
- While working as “Randy” at a landfill, O’Donnell can’t keep up with the pace and gets fired for the first time in his life.
- When was the last time someone from your corporate HQ spent any time in the trenches?
- How many people on your C-suite have ever spent time as a teller?
- How do you think your staff would feel if you spent time working alongside them — “walking a mile in their shoes,” as the expression goes?
- What would you find if you went undercover at your bank or credit union?
- Are your processes, procedures and corporate decisions hurting morale?
- How would you know if you had a rogue manager twisting corporate priorities into painful and punitive policies?
At first, O’Donnell said he was reluctant to go on the show, but, in the end, he gained some extremely valuable insights that would have been nearly impossible for him to discover through other means. “I wanted to experience what it’s like to do so many of the jobs that are vital to they way we operate every day, so I could learn what is it like. What are the challenges in these jobs.”
O’Donnell said he was “blown away with how dedicated and hardworking” his staff is and amazed at how much pride they take in their work. “What I took away was that everyone really loved the company and wanted me to succeed in my job,” he said.
What O’Donnell also learned was how his corporate cost-cutting measures and drive for operational efficiency had impacted the frontline troops.
“I learned a heck of a lot,” O’Donnell said. “I got to experience first hand the frustration that some of the decisions that I’ve made are causing [employees].”
O’Donnell resolved himself to make a number of operational changes in his organization.
If you want employees to help you build your brand, then you have to understand how corporate decisions impact frontline staff. Employees — not you — are the ones with the real power to create branded experiences. Staying connected with employees isn’t something that you do once every five years. It should be part of your culture. You don’t have to go undercover and “spy” on your employees either. Just pull up a chair next to them and roll up your sleeves. You may be surprised how such a simple act can be so enlightening, and how appreciative staff can be.
The second episode of Undercover Boss featured Hooters president and CEO Colby Brooks. While posing as a new employee, Brooks couldn’t believe what he saw when one of his managers forced female employees to compete for extra time off.
“Ladies, you want to leave early today?” the manager asks. “Then you’re going to play my ‘reindeer games.’” The manager then has the women — with hands behind their backs — race to see who can eat beans off their serving trays fastest. The manager, named “Jimbo,” squeals in pleasure as he watches his female employees root around for nuts: “Whooo doggie!!!”
“I just want to pull him by the ears and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’” Hooters CEO Brooks says.
Indeed. It doesn’t just seem immoral. It’s probably illegal.
Other companies whose chief executives will be going undercover this season include such 7-Eleven President and CEO Joseph DePinto and White Castle owner and Executive Board Member Dave Rife.