I have to confess. I wasn’t going to write an “Undercover Boss” post because everyone else already has. But Bryon Abramowitz over at The HR Technologist blog is doing a special HR Carnival – Undercover Boss Edition. I like supporting the carnival, so I’m caving in writing a post about the show.
Just in case you’ve been out of the loop, here’s some background about the show. CEOs of major corporations are spending a week undercover in their workplaces. They secretly work alongside employees under the guise they’re filming a documentary. They have some good experiences and some not so good ones. At the end, they have an epiphany about being a manager and leader, reveal their identity to the people they worked with all week, and presumably implement some initiatives to make the workplace better.
While the show is being labeled “reality” television, it’s important to keep perspective. Other shows that have held the reality label include “The Anna Nicole Show”, “Jersey Shore” and “Strange Love” featuring Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen.
But all that being said, there are some business takeaways (should you choose to spend your time watching the show):
Management by walking around still works. The whole premise of this show is about CEOs who feel they’ve lost touch with the rest of the company. Their answer is to go undercover. That’s the part I don’t agree with. It seems sneaky (but makes for good television.) But the real point is stay in touch. Walk around, talk with employees, and find out what’s going on. MBWA is nothing new, people. It’s been around for nearly 40 years and it still works.
Open communication is key. One of the things that struck me during both of the episodes was the look on the leadership team’s faces when they heard the CEO was going undercover. You could see the shock. My perception was these managers didn’t want anyone snooping around the kingdom they had created. It wasn’t addressed on the show, but the “I’ve been caught” looks reminded me open two-way communication is essential.
Speak up when something is wrong. In the first episode, there’s a point where Waste Management President & COO Larry O’Donnell is working with a female trash collector. During the day, he finds out that the only way she’s able to get all of her work done is to use a coffee container for her bio breaks (read: pee in a coffee can). Now folks, that’s just wrong. Not only is it wrong that an employee is subjected to it but it’s equally wrong that no one in management ever said, “Ya know Larry, I’m all for productivity and profits, but you do realize in order to hit this goal, employees will have to pee in coffee cans as they continue working.”
Talking to customers is important. During the second episode, Hooters CEO Coby Brooks spent some time on a street corner with a couple of Hooters girls talking to customers and potential customers. He listened to men and women talk about their perception of the Hooters brand (i.e. “degrading to women.”) Even if you don’t stand on the street, think about your brand and what your customers might say about you. It’s a valuable exercise.
Training is not optional. In the Hooters episode, a manager held a contest to see which server would go home early. In the contest, servers had to eat a plate of beans by putting their face in the plate (no utensils.) Two points I’d like to make here – (1) obviously, this manager was promoted and given no training because I’d like to think that no one in their right mind believes this is appropriate. And, (2) if by chance this manager did lose his mind and start these games, then Hooters on-going training would have reinforced the concepts of mutual respect, employee engagement, etc. and this might not have gotten out of hand.
While I was initially not looking forward to writing this post, I must say I’m happy to have gotten “Undercover Boss” off my chest. The fact that the show is even on television is a testament to why customer trust is at an all-time low and employee disengagement is at an all-time high. Companies better start dealing with that. Now, I’m looking forward to spending my Sunday evenings doing sometime productive, like playing Farmville.1