“Undercover Bosses” engage in needless workplace espionage

A scene from the 7-Eleven episode of "Undercover Boss"

THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
March 24, 2010
Perhaps the most despicable creatures on earth are the college kids who pretend to be homeless beggars in Harvard Square, a pathetic exercise to be edgy and “real.” Whether this charade is for their Facebook status or a sociology term paper, the end result is just plain obnoxious. Real homeless people can’t go back to the dorms and stuff their faces with pizza.

A similar exercise is now being broadcast on CBS, which has arranged for some of America’s top executives to dress up in aprons and nametags and briefly play in the World of Blue Collar Make-Believe.

“Undercover Boss,” which premiered after the Super Bowl, is a ratings bonanza for the network, averaging more than 18 million viewers. It has already been renewed for a second season.

Six business titans have been featured so far in the role-reversal fantasy, including such scenarios as Churchill Downs racetrack honcho Bill Carstanjen shoveling horse manure, White Castle owner Dave Rife working the drive-thru window, and Hooters CEO Coby Brooks worrying about chicken wing orders and confronting accusations that his restaurant chain is sexist.

The reality show’s appeal is clearly rooted in class warfare. Or as one viewer on the CBS Undercover Boss forum puts it, “Why do companies believe that they should get 100 percent enthusiasm and hard work from the least paid and least secure of their employees or temps? … Why not have temporary and low paid CEOs and see how well that goes, when the workforce under them can fire them if they feel that they are not doing things that are right for the company?”

Wishful thinking, of course. In most cases, bosses are the bosses because they have done something right. But they do themselves no favors by appearing on “Undercover Boss.” In the episodes I’ve seen so far, these execs come across as condescending and patronizing as those fake homeless weasels in Harvard Square.

The Undercover formula begins with the CEO making a melodramatic announcement to his executive board that he is stepping down from his leadership role. Just kidding! It’s only for a week to participate in a daring experiment that will teach everyone invaluable lessons about the company and the human condition.

Each CEO must put on a disguise, which is usually no more elaborate than shaving or growing beard stubble, taking off the necktie and slapping on a baseball cap or pair of eyeglasses. This exercise really is for the benefit of the CEO’s ego, because at most large companies, workers couldn’t pick out their face in a police line-up.

The undercover executive then performs some menial tasks and talks to his “co-workers.” He learns that some of them have families and others have chronic health conditions. He gives them all big hugs.

Later comes “the reveal” where the CEO gets dressed up in a suit again and reconnects with the employees he tricked. He praises them for their hard work and gives some of them promotions or cash bonuses. At a standing-room-only company meeting, he shares everything he learned about the meaning of teamwork. On command, the crowd erupts into raucous applause.

Inevitably, these Undercover Bosses wind up embarrassing themselves for posterity. Was 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto truly shocked when he learned one of his store’s third-shift managers — a man fortunate enough to have never been held at gunpoint — had greater career ambitions?

Here’s a business lesson that will never be featured: Bosses who want to truly connect with their workers and understand their needs don’t need to spy on them. They can engage them in conversations out in the open — no costumes necessary.
Darren Garnick’s “The Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Boston Herald. Feedback and story ideas are welcomed at heraldstiff@gmail.com

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