From the headline you might think that I don't like Undercover Boss. You'd be wrong.
I despise it.
I waited until I had a couple of shows under my belt before weighing in. I also wanted to see how folks in HR took it. I've seen a few posts on it (here, here, here) but I'll be honest – I've been a bit surprised at the LACK of reaction from my HR social network. I can only assume that is hasn't really had that big an impression on them – or it is just too bland a concept to generate either positive or negative reaction.
Normally I stay focused on my little niche of influence and incentives but I'm going to step outside that and post here since @jessica_lee has placed a moratorium on posting about Undercover Boss on the Fistful of Talent blog where I'd normally take this discussion.
So, why do I dislike this show so much…
It Ain't Random – It's Scripted and Manipulative
I can't prove it but the circumstantial evidence has my BS meter pinging like a pachinko parlor.
The Magic Wand Finale
Here's where it gets really good – or bad. At the finale of the show they bring in the folks the CXO scammed and introduces himself (sorry girls – no women yet – another problem?) as the head honcho. Cue magic wand, uplifting music, and tears of joy – presto, chango – the problems are addressed.
Let me be the wet blanket here…
All of this is great for the 8 or 10 folks who were picked to work with the CXO. What about the others – the ones they didn't feature on the show.
Do all the overworked managers get a vaction?
Does everyone who can draw Bambi on the back of the matchbox get a shot at the next ad campaign?
Does every employee with a serious illness get a donation made in their name to the charity supporting it?
How is this helping? How is this elevating the conversation about work in America and the disconnect between CXOs and the rank and file?
It's pandering pure and simple. But pandering to who?
If I were an employee in any one of those organizations I'd be pissed that someone got special, and in some cases, life-altering preference just because they were picked to be on camera. I'd be mad that only those special cases were addressed.
So they can't be pandering to the rank and file – they'd be like me – wondering where their little sumptin, sumptin is… I have to believe most employees see this as a thinly veiled attempt to make the CXOs feel good about their 40 hours of slumming.
Are they pandering to CXOs? Can't be – they end up looking like clueless baboons every time they try to do an entry level job. I have to believe that the top brass at any other organization would watch this and laugh.
Where Is The Change?
What I saw in the three episodes was a glorified commercial for each of the companies. They get to eat a little humble pie for 60 minutes then reveal that their heart grew three sizes during their undercover week.
What I saw was a band aid applied to some pretty egregious problems in order to swell the tear ducts and paint a new portrait of the company.
What I saw was a show designed for the lowest denominator of viewer. Not the lowest common denominator – the lowest period.
Where is the discussion of the systemic changes that will occur to make the problems right? Calling a COO to get light bulbs fixed at a 7-11 isn't the fault of the department responsible – it's the fault of a policy that requires a huge organization like 7-11 to be responsible for light bulbs. Go buy your own and expense it. Jeez… how tough is that! Problem fixed – today AND tomorrow.
Where is fast and final reaction to a manager who makes employees eat beans off a plate without their hands? That’s not a learning moment – that's a firing moment. I'd have had more respect for the company if the CEO "broke cover" and fired the guy on the spot.
Granted they can't cover all the changes that need to be made in a one hour show – but nothing is even mentioned about the systemic changes any one of the companies is making. They just highlighting the magic wand moments. Is there follow up? Will next season be a "where are they now" compilation? That might just make me want to tune back in.
I can't convey my disgust for the program adequately here (or maybe I have.)
Will I continue to watch? You bet – they win.
They got me hooked. Like an accident on the side of the road – you don't want to look but you can't stop yourself. I'll keep looking – and shaking my head and say "oooh… that's bad, hope no one is hurt."
Unfortunately, every employee is hurt by this show. Except the ones who were lucky enough to be on it.
If you are a CXO and you want to use anything from this show here's my advice…
Go to your next staff meeting, lie to them and tell them you will be going undercover in 7 days. Then monitor the phone and emails from you staff. If there is a decided uptick in communication down the line – you got big problems. 'Cuz that activity means your staff knows there are problems but they aren't telling you and they are covering their asses before you hit the streets.
No calls or emails – you're golden. That means your staff knows what's going on and feel comfortable you'll like what you see.
The best thing this show did is give you that weapon. Use it.
Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence