Undercover Boss: Making CEOs More Palatable?

March 2, 2010
By | 5 Comments

Waste Management CEO Larry O'Donnell, as CEO and undercover employee

I am really intrigued by CBS’s new reality show Undercover Boss. The program is produced by Studio Lambert (Wife Swap) and follows the format of a program of the same name that aired on British Channel 4. The program premiered after the Super Bowl on February 7, 2010, and drew 38.6 million viewers, the largest audience ever for a new series following the Super Bowl. The show’s premise is relatively simple: a senior executive from a large corporation goes “undercover” in his or her own company for one week as a entry level worker (albeit one who is being followed by a documentary crew) to learn the day-to-day operations in a range of positions and locations. The show’s opening sequence promises the executives “will discover the truth.”

I have watched the first three episodes of the show, and it is not entirely clear to me what “truth” the executives are seeking. What is interesting about the show is its juxtaposition of the executives’ wealth and power with the workers’ menial labor. In each of the first three episodes, we see Waste Management CEO Larry O’Donnell, Hooters CEO Coby Brooks, and 7-Eleven CEO Joseph DePinto astonished by the physically demanding positions their employees hold and by the conditions of the companies’ facilities—clearly demonstrating that these CEOs are out of touch with the impact of their top-down decisions to boost the bottom line. The executives are repulsed by the behaviors of some of their employees (for example, Jimbo the Hooters manager who degrades his store’s waitresses) and also uplifted by the spirit shown by their employees, especially in the face of hardships (for example, Delores at 7-Eleven maintains a positive store environment despite being on dialysis for numerous years).

At the end of each week the employees who have worked with the undercover CEO are mysteriously summoned to corporate headquarters where the CEOs reveal their true identities, and commit themselves to rewarding deserving employees, reworking dysfunctional systems, and donating company funds to charitable organizations their employees value. Each episode ends with the CEO on stage in front of a crowd of his employees where he admits he did not know his business as well as he thought; to a teary-eyed audience of employees, he commits to making the business better. From the reaction statements given by the employees, the experience is altering: the mostly working-class employees are impressed with the executive’s drive to work alongside them and to try to understand their experiences. But as a viewer, I am still left wondering what truth the executives have learned.

I believe the key to understanding this truth is in the opening sequence, where a voiceover states:  “The economy is going through tough times. Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better.” Positioned against bad press about extravagant executive compensation in the midst of a financial meltdown and growing national unemployment, Undercover Boss is a makeover show that aims to humanize executives in the eyes of the masses disillusioned with corporate America and teaches them to be humble in the presence of their employees. Faced with the “truths” of their workers’ situations, the CEOs (in a format standard in the program) praise their employees and recommit themselves to running their businesses more humanely—to crowd cheers.

The long-term impact of this makeover is unclear. Certainly the business featured in each episode receives great PR, but because the makeovers are business-by-business, the more systematic reformation we need nationally goes by the wayside. The show certainly encourages audience members to imagine the changes they wish for their workplaces, but the show suggests these changes are more likely to occur through reality programming than through collective action or government intervention. Without these important tools, how will other executives come to understand the truths of workers’ lives especially in comparison to their own privileged positions?


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5 Responses to “ Undercover Boss: Making CEOs More Palatable? ”

  1. Tim Anderson on March 2, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    I look forward to the academic version of this when the president of a major university is charged with a 4/4 load for a month at a local community college. 🙂

  2. Michael Dwyer on March 2, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    I noticed this, as well–though it wasn’t as blatant as the misogynist ‘manvertising’ during the Super Bowl, there was a clear attempt between this show (which directly followed the SB) and a few of the ads to work to humanize the CEO–The Coke ad where a down-on-his-luck Mr. Burns is given a Coke and allowed to join in on the pleasure of a summer day in the park comes to mind.

    The interesting thing about Undercover Boss is that it relocates the source of corporate America’s exploitation of workers from the structural organization (represented to the boss) to irresponsible or petty practices of middle management. “It’s not the system,” the show seems to say, “it’s that a-hole of a boss you have that’s the problem.” The episode where the Hooters owner is shocked (shocked!) that not everyone thinks of Hooters as a wonderful place, and then he refuses to take any meaningful action against the sexual harassment practiced by the store manager (who should have at least lost his job) was telling.

    • Erin Copple Smith on March 3, 2010 at 3:38 PM

      I agree, Michael. I’ve only seen one episode–last Sunday’s, which followed the White Castle owner. The only “problem” the boss discovered was that there were supervisors at the frozen foods division who weren’t pitching in on the line, resulting in line workers being annoyed and frustrated. This obviously isn’t a problem of the CEO or owner, right? It’s the problem of those darn supervisors! And, luckily, such interpersonal/HR type problems can be solved if employees would just talk to each other and work together for the betterment of the company! (Or so the owner and/or show would have you believe.)

  3. Erin Copple Smith on March 3, 2010 at 3:42 PM

    One other thing about Undercover Boss that struck me is the absence (or, anyway, my perception of the absence–correct me if I’m wrong, as my experience is limited) of any sense that maybe these employees would prefer *not* to be working for White Castle/Hooters/Waste Management/7-Eleven/etc. One of the White Castle employees mentioned a desire to go to culinary school, but was presented as satisfied to produce a new “secret sauce” for the burgers at the franchised restaurant where he works.

    I ended up wondering whether this was simply a reflection of general beliefs about blue-collar workers–that they’re perfectly satisfied with their social position, that they’re resigned to a life behind the counter at White Castle or on a 7-Eleven delivery truck, and that, really, that’s how it should be.

    Great post, Melissa–a lot of food for thought, here.

  4. Rebecca Bley on March 4, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    I’ve seen a couple episodes now, and each time I’m struck by a sense of futility in trying to change things for one person at a time. I know they only do so much, but rewarding a handful of employees while making grand speeches about the future is just not convincing to me. I am far more interested in seeing how the companies look a year from now.