These last few years, I have occasionally found myself watching the TV show Undercover Boss. From the wiki:
Undercover Boss is an Emmy Award-winning television franchise series created by Stephen Lambert and produced in many countries. It originated in 2009 on the British Channel 4. The show’s format features the experiences of senior executives working undercover in their own companies to investigate how their firms really work and to identify how they can be improved, as well as to reward hard-working employees.
Each episode features a high-ranking executive or the owner of a corporation going undercover as an entry-level employee in his or her own company. The executives alter their appearance and assume an alias and fictional back-story. The fictitious explanation given for the accompanying camera crew is that the executives are being filmed as part of a documentary about entry-level workers in a particular industry, or a competition with another individual with the winner getting a job with the company. They spend approximately one to two weeks undercover (one week being the norm in some editions, such as the U.S. version, and two weeks in some other versions, such as the Australian edition), working in various areas of their company’s operations, with a different job and in most cases a different location each day. They are exposed to a series of predicaments with amusing results, and invariably spend time getting to know the people who work in the company, learning about their professional and personal challenges.
Now, I have laughed at some of the “…series of predicaments with amusing results…” It can be very amusing to see someone who spends the bulk of their time behind a desk trying to wrestle a pallet loader or make a bed or wait on a customer. But there was always something that bothered me about the show and I eventually figured it out. It goes to the pieces of the wiki that I have bolded – “…rewarding hard-working employees” and “…learning about their professional and personal challenges.” The wiki for the US version of the show has a bit that covers much of what bothers me about it, from a review in the Washington Post:
The Washington Post, in a negative review, said that Undercover Boss “is a hollow catharsis for a nation already strung out on the futility of resenting those who occupy CEO suites.”
Further from the Washington Post review:
And in trickle-down style comes a show in which ordinary people get paid exactly nothing to experience the strangest sort of practical joke in their workplace, as if they’re being “Punk’d” by a Successories poster: The head of the company wants to work alongside them, but — get this — they won’t know it’s him. And the sad part is, rather than tell a story about middle-class anger, “Undercover Boss” is drizzled with the feel-good syrup of corporate bunk.
Most of the shows I’ve seen have the “undercover” person meeting front line workers and being shown how the person does the job. As the worker and undercover boss do the task(s), they talk together and we hear the stories of the workers. It may be how the worker is a single mother worrying about how she will pay for her children’s education. It may be the story of how the worker volunteers at a homeless shelter. Whatever the story the worker has to tell, it is usually some variation on heart warming to heart wrenching. At the end of the episode, the workers the “undercover boss” has met are brought to the headquarters where they then meet the boss in his/her real life. Sometimes they recognize the person they knew as a worker, sometimes they don’t but they always seem to be shocked at the news they have been working with a big cheese. Almost invariably, the boss will reward the worker(s) – sometimes it might be a new car to replace the junker the worker has been using to transport food for the food pantry. It might be a scholarship fund or it might be a no interest loan for home repairs. Sometimes the boss creates a new position within the organization for the worker but no matter what special reward is provided, it is always a feel good moment.
But for all the feel good moments within the shows, what about all the other “Hard-working employees” who do not appear on camera dealing with the “undercover boss?” What will the organization do about the “professional and personal challenges” of the hundreds and thousands of other employees who are not privileged? Would it be possible for the businesses, producers, CBS, and other networks showing this TV series to maybe start doing little things like paying living wages, funding defined benefit retirement plans, providing full health care coverage to all employees? Maybe they could work to assure their companies aren’t polluting the environment, maybe fewer feel good moments at the end of a television episode and more moments of businesses recognizing the values of all workers, not just the ones the show’s producers decide can increase a couple of ratings points.
No, I am not going to hold my breath.
And because I can: