Undercover Boss — good and bad

I just watched the first episode of Undercover Boss, the new reality show from CBS. The idea is that a corporate executive goes “undercover” to find out what work is like on the frontlines of the company.

Tonight’s episode followed Larry O’Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, the $13 billion group that handles all sorts of dirty jobs — garbage collection, recycling, waste disposal, and so on. Waste Management made Wayne Huizenga‘s first fortune, growing enormously as municipalities in the US and internationally contracted out services like garbage collection and recycling (an aside: isn’t Huizenga’s success with Blockbuster after WM the oddest one-two success in entrepreneurial history?).

O’Donnell donned WM’s drab uniforms to spend a day on a recycling line, on a garbage route, picking up paper in a landfill, cleaning toilets at an amusement park, and shadowing a woman who seemed to do a half dozen jobs at another landfill. There were some aspects to Undercover Boss that I thought were brilliant. It gives a glimpse of just how repetitive and dreary working life is for so many people. Not only are jobs routinized, but the demands of ever-increasing productivity mean that workers are forced to do more and more and more, to keep up with the requirements of the distant corporate office. Larry, in his undercover role as Randy, couldn’t come close to filling two plastic bags with paper in 10 minutes on the landfill. He was fired.

Local management often came across as the villains. They spy on employees, they sit watching video monitors, they seem to have little connection with the people doing the hard labor.

Undercover Boss also showed how some workers really make the best of whatever confronts them. I wonder how set up the triumph over tragedy stories in this one episode were. Did the producers, for example, know that the supervisor on the landfill went for weekly dialysis? That the woman who juggled several jobs for WM was facing a house foreclosure? It’s possible Larry didn’t know, but someone did.

I cheered along with most of the audience, I’d guess, as Larry learned the lessons of the frontline, and brought the insights back to the head office. Good leaders have been “managing by walking about” for many years, but it certainly helps that the corporate world sees the benefit of a reality check. Bosses are generally far too insulated by salary, perks, distance, fawning executive teams, and so much else, no matter how well meaning they may be.

Needless to say, in the end Larry did the right thing. The woman from the landfill site was promoted to a management role and hired two people to fill the jobs she was doing alone. The great guy helping out with the toilets at the amusement park was celebrated. The tough supervisor on dialysis is now a health mentor for the whole company. And on and on. But is the company going to do anything to spot the thousands of people who are probably just as good as those lucky enough to be plucked from obscurity? Will the lessons endure past the airing date of the program?

I think I can guarantee that the producers of Undercover Boss will have every corporate communications advisor in the country clamoring to get their boss on the next series. It’s brilliant TV, but it also enables a media-savvy boss to paint himself in the best possible way in an hour of prime time.

O’Donnell, by the way, made just short of $3 million in the last reported year for WM, and has about $11 million in options. The program somehow didn’t mention that.

3 thoughts on “Undercover Boss — good and bad

  1. Nico Macdonald

    It seems some version of Undercover Boss went out in the UK last year. More generally, it is remarkable how little real work features in the cultural sphere, from drama to documentary to comedy. In the former category an honorable exception was Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off. In the latter category The Office which was at least about white collar work.

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  2. Lance Knobel

    The US Undercover Boss comes from a British producer, Stephen Lambert. I’m unsurprised he tried the format out in the UK first.

    Clocking Off was brilliant, and didn’t have the fiction of corporate hierarchies implicit in Undercover Boss (now that Larry has seen the truth, of course everything will be OK). Going further back, there’s also Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff.

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  3. KPD

    The UK version (Back to the Floor) had a Wedgwood exec and a Heathrow manager, among others–I felt sorry for the latter (impossible job). The show was really well done (natch).

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