Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: “Undercover Boss”

with 2 comments

After the Super Bowl last night, CBS debuted its new reality series “Undercover Boss.” The show follows corporate leaders who disguise themselves as they perform some frontline work. In last night’s show, Larry O’Donnell, President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management, spent a week among frontline staff. He picked up trash, cleaned portable toilets, sorted recyclables and other jobs that his company performs every day.

As the Wall Street Journal’s review pointed out, the show highlighted some areas for improvement for the company, but the employees, on the whole, were a pretty happy-go-lucky lot. Of course, to participate in the show, companies needed assurance that they would be portrayed somewhat positively. Nevertheless, the drama of the show struck me as real, and the show does much good in what it reveals.

The company benefits from having a senior executive look good on television. Mr. O’Donnell bumbled along, doing most jobs decently well, but failing entirely at one. He came across as quite human, in his bumbling, in his concern for the real challenges his staff face and in his family story. Corporations would do well to remind the public that their leaders are human, have lives, struggles and challenges just like normal people. Senior corporate leaders do themselves no favors when they fly corporate jets to Congressional hearings, and take limos everywhere.

Moreover, the senior executive comes back with valuable frontline intelligence about how to manage and lead the company better. In the communications cascade up the corporate ladder, far too much of value gets sanitized at most companies. This first-hand insight into the true operations of the company can be a valuable input into future decision-making and leadership by senior executives. It also reminds the executive that his or her company does work which he or she does not do. Figuring out this quarter’s earnings or making policies, while critical, do not constitute the work of the company. People at the corporate center should remember that fact. Indeed, at great companies, senior executives find ways to obtain unfiltered, unsanitized and raw data from customers and employees.

The show also benefits viewers, and the public, by showing the multitude of work that large companies perform. Many people in our country and around the globe have a tendency to demonize large companies because of their impact on the environment or their worker policies or because of ten thousand other reasons. Those same people would have much less pleasant lives because of the work large companies, and their employees, take on. “Undercover Boss” reminds people of that fact; it is a reminder worth giving.


Written by Russell S.

February 9, 2010 at 12:04 am

2 Responses

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  1. As much as I’m usually a “Companies Good, People Bad” type of person, I have to say that this seems to be an overly positive and optimistic spin on the show I saw last night.

    O’Donnell was portrayed as someone who was dismayed and shocked by the realities of the basic tasks and workers required for his company. Which allows him to distance himself from the causes for the current condition. Who do you think set the tone for the company, and developed/signed-off on the business models that require collectors to relieve themselves in cans and employees to worry about time cards? Middle management doesn’t (for the most part) come up with sadistic rules for the hell of it – they’re due to increasing pressure from their bosses.

    Add to the fact that it seems that no substantial changes were put in place at WM as a result of this “learning exercise” (see this review –, and this just seems to be cloying pro-executive propaganda.

    Give me “Dirty Jobs” any day to show viewers that life is hard.


    February 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

  2. I would disagree with you on them choosing a happy go lucky brood of workers. The two older women were clearly unhappy with certain aspects of the company and their job. The younger woman shown, although happy, was clearly overloaded and overly stressed from her work.
    Overall, I thought this show was fantastic. It gave light to a company that may have inner problems and their willingness to fix them.
    I am anticipating next weeks episode concerning Hooters. The one employee seemed rather sexist and gross, telling his girls they could only get out early by playing his games. His games including: an eating contest of a plate of beans and him hovering and most likely looking down their shirts. What scum!


    February 9, 2010 at 1:30 am

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