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“Undercover Boss” – A Social Makeover for Corporate Executives?

Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA
Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA

CBS network hosts a show that some are hoping will bring about social change. The show “Undercover Boss” portrays a CEO, or other C-level executive, leaving his throne, donning a disguise and going down into the trenches to work in basic and entry-level jobs within his or her company. A cameraman follows the executive documenting the experience. (To explain the cameras following the potential employee around, they tell the current employees that this is one of two unemployed “whatevers” looking for a job and participating in a documentary where one of them will be hired.)

During the boss’s foray into the lowest levels of his organization, where the “real work” happens, they meet employees who are lively and vivacious and very service-oriented, employees with serious family, financial, and health problems, or employees struggling to get a college education while working at low-level, full-time positions so that they can better their lives. Some employees have dreams of working their way into the corporate office where they hope to make a positive impact on the company. Sometimes they meet employees who are failing miserably.

The scenes that make it into the show are obviously going to be the ones that are most dramatic or attention-getting, thus coloring the events to reflect the goal of the producers for gaining an audience. More than one employer has found himself fired for being unable to handle the demands of the job—either not being able to keep up with a conveyer belt spewing out products, or too slow at cleaning bathrooms, or unable to make a decent hamburger for the company’s customers.

At the end of the show individual employees that the boss interacted with are brought into corporate headquarters under the guise of voicing their opinion on whether the job applicant should be hired. Then the executive’s true identity is revealed and he commends the employees for their good work or ideas and often offers them anything from $5,000 or more to partial college tuition for their children, an all-expenses paid vacation, money for charities in the employee’s name or the name of someone important to them, an opportunity to work in some key initiative, committee or training program, or possibly a promotion and pay raise.

I watch the show. I like seeing who the individuals running these companies are and how they respond to the challenges their employees face on a daily basis. As these bosses grow to know their employees, they appear to be changed. They appear to be more aware of the differences between their world and the world of their employees. Instead of “human resources” (a term I dislike intensely), they start becoming human beings. From the boss who went through the entire show fighting tears to the bosses who had never worked up the ranks and decided that all executives need to spend time at the ground level as part of their training. They meet employees who have faced similar life trials and realize, “there but for the grace of God…”

Is it possible that a show like this can bring social change?

There has been much talk for years about the difference in salaries between the executive floor and the ground floor and how that difference has been expanding exponentially as CEOs receive higher salaries and bonus packages far beyond what the lower paid employees receive. In the beginning of most of these shows we see where the boss lives, usually, although occasionally not, in some huge mansion driving expensive cars, sometimes traveling via corporate jet, a life very far removed from most workers. They move into what appears to be cheap motels during the show and wear cheap clothes, giving them a taste of the other side of life. They meet and have to prove themselves to employees who sometimes are barely providing for their families, have children with serious health problems or special needs. Some employees have faced very difficult challenges from homelessness, to children’s deaths, to divorce, to overwhelming bills they can’t get out from under. The boss then throws them a bone, promotes them, gives them a one-time cash bonus or vacation, or helps with medical bills or college tuition.

However, in the end, the boss goes back to his or her mansion and expensive cars, and what happens to the rest of the employees in the company who are battling the same issues as their co-workers, but didn’t have the good fortune to be the one who interacted with the boss? And does the boss truly change his company to make a difference in the lives of all the employees, or do the executives all pat themselves on the back for the good they’ve done, then move on with increasing revenue and profit margins?

One recent CEO was Sheldon Yellen of Belfor, the largest property restoration company in the world, located in 29 countries. Yellen himself grew up in difficult financial circumstances. He proudly stated how he had saved jobs in the company by freezing wages for two years; then he met his employees and learned how devastating an impact that wage freeze was having on them, while he flew between his temporary assignments on a corporate jet. When he returned to his company, Yellen seemed to have suddenly remembered it wasn’t about reaching the golden ring at the top with all of its perks, it was about pulling people up from the bottom.

If there is to be social change, then there has to be a relationship between the lives of the executives on the C-floor and the lives of the individuals on all the floors beneath, not just that handful of employees possibly singled out in advance for the dramatic impact their stories will have on television.

Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA, serves as academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review. Her book on creative writing, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, is forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books in June 2011.She also served as editor of Marshall, a USC academic/alumni magazine, and started the Marshall Review, an online journal for the Marshall School of Business at USC.  More than 125 of her articles have been published in local and national publications. Dodd received her master’s in Professional Writing from USC with a concentration in screenwriting and an MFA in playwriting at the USC School of Theatre. Ms. Dodd also teaches screenwriting as an adjunct faculty in Seaver College at Pepperdine University.

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Graziadio Business Review
Graziadio Business Review is an online journal that delivers relevant business information and analysis for business, government, and non-profit managers. From accounting and finance to ethics and work/life balance, the Graziadio Business Review extends current business debates in new directions that you can use to advance your business and professional career.
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