Undercover Boss Gets Noticed
By Tom Ryan
The latest breakout reality show, Undercover
Boss on CBS, shows a CEO covertly taking a job alongside lower-rung
employees. Mimicking a common literary device used in Mark Twain’s Prince
and the Pauper and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, the CEO
in each episode undergoes an epiphany after ‘walking in the shoes’ of
Employees are told that that a film crew
is documenting an unemployed worker looking for a job. After the CEO’s
career journey and successes are detailed, the exec goes undercover and
inevitably gets embarrassed tackling the daily routines of employees. The
president of Waste Management is fired for poor performance at picking
up litter with a pointy stick. 7-Eleven’s CEO accidentally mixes two flavors
of coffee together and overflows another pot. White Castle’s owner accidentally
ruins thousands of hamburger buns in one of its bakeries.
But the major focus is on employees’ stories.
Although some offenses are uncovered (a sexist manager at Hooters for one),
the heart of each episode centers around the overworked and underappreciated
“unsung heroes.” In the 7-Eleven episode, a deliveryman works so hard he
only sees his wife on weekends and a woman who knows every customer’s name
needs a kidney donor.
The big payoff is the shock when the exec
is revealed to workers for the first time. In the warm-and-fuzzy ending,
the top executive is celebrated for undergoing a transformation, promising
to make changes at the company, and personally making arrangements to improve
the working conditions or lives of featured employees. At the same time,
the workers’ efforts are celebrated and rewarded. On the Oprah Winfrey
Show, 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto handed the keys to a 7-Eleven franchise
to a truck driver.
Speaking to USA Today, Mr. DePinto
said he had often surreptitiously strolled his company’s stores, since
you what you want to hear rather than what is really happening” when they
know they’re talking to an executive.
“I typically try to find things that are
positive,” said Mr. DePinto. “But I will always see things that can be
Following his time on the show in which he
was fired in a distribution center, Michal Rubin, CEO at GSI Commerce,
said his company is piloting a program entitled ‘A Day in the Life,’ where
key corporate employees will spend about a week in its customer contact
centers learning and observing.
“If the pilot achieves the goals then it will
be rolled out company-wide,” Mr. Rubin told The Times Herald in
Nonetheless, some critics are calling Undercover
Boss an hour-long corporate infomercial. Some believe the show is
too scripted to work in reality.
“Is it real?” said Jennifer
Bresnan, CBS’s executive in charge of reality programming, to The New
York Times. “The experience is real; that’s all you can say. The
conceit of the boss going undercover is of course set up. But the first
time they meet these people is in front of the camera. Their experience
How much of a retail CEO’s job should be spent in stores? In what other
ways can retail CEOs get a ground-level view of their companies? Are
covert methods effective in improving retail performance?
- Undercover Boss – CBS
- Where’s the Boss? In
Disguise, and at the Top of the Television Ratings – The New
- ‘Undercover Boss’ is
the anti-‘Apprentice’ – MSNBC
- Employers use myriad
ways to monitor employees – USA Today
- ‘Undercover Boss’ taps
local VIP in Upper Merion – The Times Herald