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Undercover Boss – Predictable, Scripted, Worthless and Crap


Undercoverbosses 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.

  • Episode One – COO has a differently-abled daughter and happens to run into a customer on the route that is differently-abled AND she has a poem ready to read about the route driver?

    Homework Assignment:  Someone with a more advanced degree in statistics than me – what are the odds?

  • Episode Two – CEO finds out that the Hooters outfits (ney the whole concept of Hooters) is demeaning to women.  Really?  No, really?  What did he think Hooters was about – chicken wings?
  • Episode Three – CEO – who is a West Point Grad, hooks up on the donut line with an Army Sergeant. This one just might be possible if the company has a policy that moves ex-military to the front of the hiring line.  But in a company with 200,000 employees it would have to be very rigorously enforced policy.
  • Each episode shows the CXO failing at the day-to-day tasks to highlight how difficult the jobs are.  C’mon – any task is difficult the first time out of the box.  I’d like to see how they did after a week or so of doing it.  I’m guessing they figure it out and do pretty well after a bit of learning curve.  That’s just manufactured sympathy for entry level positions.  Don’t get me wrong – I waited tables, moved furniture and did a lot of entry level jobs – I know they are tough – but I don’t buy the “CXO can’t do my job” message the show is sending.
  • Not to mention – 2 out 3 of the companies hooked their top brass up with someone with a very serious health issue – kidney failure.  Not sure if being on the show causes kidney failure but 66% sounds a bit more than just random sampling.

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.

  • A promotion for someone doing more than one job.
  • An assignment to sit on a task force.
  • An apology to staff that were demeaned and treated like crap.
  • A vacation for an overworked manager.
  • A “free” franchise for a night route driver. (I say free in quotes because the show just says – was given a franchise – could mean he was bumped up in the pecking order and still had to lay out the money.)
  • A chance to work on corporate marketing and advertising campaigns.

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 not.

It’s pandering pure and simple.  But pandering to whom?

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?

Grinch 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.

Beans 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

42 Responses to “Undercover Boss – Predictable, Scripted, Worthless and Crap”

  1. Ben Eubanks says:

    Paul, I love your synopsis. I haven’t watched it and don’t plan to. There are just too many strange coincidences (winkwink) that made me think from the start that it was all phony.
    Plus I don’t have TV. So I guess that helps. :-)

    • Dimples says:

      I watch the show and wonder how do all the other employees feel about the chosen few that each CEO gives too. To me it’s a slap in the face especially if you are a dedicated long term employee. Why not take all those thousands that are given to the few, and give a raise to all the employees or a little extra something in their check.

      • MB Becky Weaver says:

        Because it’s not about solving REAL problems within the company. It’s just an hour long commercial to try to make the company look good and get more customers, lol. Sorry, but it’s just a BS show.

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    No TV? You must be the smartest man alive! You are not missing anything. This show actually can make you dumber…

  3. Lance Haun says:

    I don’t know if there is anything to discuss about the show Paul. As you’ve laid out here, it is typical entertainment television.
    I feel like this is typical corporate hubris about how to impact change from the top down. It doesn’t work this way. There is no understanding going on. It reinforces the wrong message.
    It is probably good for TV though. I think a truly realistic view would be featured on PBS. It wouldn’t be entertaining enough. It would be too deep when you dive into the complex issues that these executives should be facing.

  4. Paul Hebert says:

    Your point about hubris is well made. These companies now think they’ve done the job and things will go back to “normal.” Let’s pitch PBS on a tag on show!

  5. Paul Smith says:

    This show has never sounded interesting to me because I thought it would be too fake and would be edited to make for good TV.
    Your article confirmed my suspicions of what this show would be like and I’m glad I’m not watching it.
    I would be more interested in seeing a real documentary 10 years from now to see the effect this had on those involved. How did this change anyone’s life? How did this change anyone’s workplace? Who benefited? Who did it harm? Did this show really make a difference?

  6. Jeff says:

    These shows can’t be real and spontaneous, there is a camera and lights in everyone’s face. It’s scripted and acted to look real. New guy comes in to work and a camera crew is following? How often does that happen in real life?

  7. Paul Hebert says:

    They do try to “disguise” it by saying they are filming a documentary on “unemployment” and someone starting a new job. But there is always the risk that people will act different when on camera than off – and I think that applies here as well – regardless of the explanation for the cameras.

  8. Scott S. of Warren says:

    This show absolutely drives my wife and I nuts. We’ve noticed many of the things you stated in your blog and some other things too:
    – The CXO usually at some point gets “fired” by a supervisor
    – There is usually a scene where all the participants are being transported to the company headquarters. Usually one or more says “Gee wow, am I going to get fired? Am I in trouble?”. Yup, that’s what companies do when they want to fire you, they fly you to an airport and have you picked up in a streched out limo with a camera and sound crew so they can have you come to headquarters to be fired on camera.
    – The employees “believe” that the film crew is there to observe someone who’s taking the job for the first time. Why the heck would any sane person say so many negative things about their company in front of a camera crew? Any sane person would want to preserve their job, because if the cover story is truly believed they know their negative comments could be aired on a show about a guy starting at their company. “Oh hi, welcome to your first day at White Castle. Did you know you can be fired at any time for putting the pickle on the cheese like that? I just thought I’d tell you that in front of this camera crew because I for some reason have no fear of my negative comments having any repercussion on my employment during the filming of a show that it supposed to be about what it’s like working a day at White Castle.”
    – The employees to be followed are not picked randomly.
    – There is always one employee that does an outstanding job and is promoted to a position or put in charge of a campaign.
    – This doesn’t prove the show is fake, but is annoying to me: At the end of the show there are clips played on a video screen, and the video screen is obviously an editing effect, because the video wouldn’t be that clear. It just damages the credibility of the show because it’s supposed to be “real”
    – The CXO for some reason always has a hard time sleeping and verbalizes that he’s having a hard time just before they go to their first assignment
    This show is actually more fake and scripted than “Pawn Stars”.
    Great article, I loved your analysis of the show.

    • Max Krakah says:

      “The CXO for some reason always has a hard time sleeping ….” Yeah, most likely that has something to do with alcohol indulgence.

  9. Paul Hebert says:

    Hey – don’t be dissing my Pawn Stars – scripted or not it’s the boomer/gen x version of Antiques Roadshow!
    You bring up some points I too have thought were ridiculous as well – limo ride to get fired – yeah happens allllll the time.
    I like the idea of management by walking around – and I do think companies could use a little more inside intel relating to their operations but the show doesn’t make anyone look good in the end.
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting – I appreciate it.

  10. Overt Guidance from Undercover Boss

    Regardless of your opinion of Undercover Boss (mostly in the realm of hate it/love it, with little in-between), it’s generating fascinating discussion in the workplace. (For example, check out Paul Hebert’s review.) That discussion is also resulting in…

  11. Ken says:

    All you have to do is look at the camera angles. maybe the people are real, and maybe the conversations took place, but each scene it obviously edited and reshot, just like in movies. You will see a shot of the “Boss” knocking at the door, and then a shot from the INSIDE OF THE DOOR as the employee answers it. The “Boss” will then introduce himself. Obviously the cameras were already inside and the employee already knew that the door was about to be knocked on. It was no surprise.
    The second problem is that you will see three different camera angles when an employee is talking to the boss during the “Lunch Break.” You see an angle looking at the boss face as he speaks, then another camera facing the employee as he responds. BUT ALL IN A SUDDEN THE CAMERAS ARE MISSING AFTER THE SWITCH. They have to stop the action, remove a camera and then shoot again, or they just shoot the same scene from three different angles and edit the scenes.

  12. Johnny Kraps says:

    Paul, my professor of Organization Communications makes us watch this every Sunday. I was going to blog about how manipulative the show is and how I despise it as well. Then I read your blog and was like, well how about I just link his blog.
    In PR everyone’s talking about authenticity and I think this sends us into some cloudy waters regarding whether or not the company/ceo is authentic on the show.

    • joe frank says:

      I use to watch this show only because i wanted to see what it was all about.But this show is fake and i dont believe that they even care about there employees. These higher ups only care about lining there own pockets in the end all this money and vacations and ect.Only serves as a tax right offs after making too much that year and having to give a big portion of the money receive from going on the show Helps pays for what ever that company thinks those individuals deserve. It’s so sad in the end they will be fired first. Maybe in a year are two after the show has aired.Save that money good folks u may need it .

  13. Anonymous says:

    How the hell can a camera crew go around with them and something candid is supposed to be said. The people working for the company would not want to say a damn thing that might incremidate them on film. The whole show is bogus.

  14. Michael Gooden says:

    I do have to agree with you on this.

    The reason I continue to watch it is different to your explanation though. As much as it is scripted and predictable, they still show you what the employees actually do in their jobs. This is important for me because I can see the systems that the company had put in place and how effectively they work.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Funny… that too is the one reason I did watch for a while. In fact, when asked what kind or reality show would I like – that is it – seeing how other people do a job – but not just the highlights – but the day-to-day stuff. That is fascinating. Thanks for commenting. I haven’t watched since the first season… is it still the same?

  15. Rob says:

    I saw a show that had a row of coolers with sports drinks in them and the employee was complaining that they could no longer get sports drinks on hot days.  The thing that made me realize that the show was scripted. All of the labels were removed from the sports drinks.  Why would they remove the labels if they didn’t know they were going to be the object of a complaint?

  16. […] the Undercover Boss. I think it’s scripted and totally fake. My friend Paul agrees and wrote this awesome post about it. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be […]

  17. vanillasteve says:

    It’s complete bs. On the ADT episode, the workers were complaining about how poor they were and giving specifics of all of their problems within 5 minutes of meeting their co-worker. Who does that?

    • Mike Rushing says:

      EXACTLY!!! One that I watched, the CEO/COO had just met this guy and he poured out his life. He was in so need of money. He then, within hours of meeting each other, invites him to his home for lunch? It’s so odd that in 7 days they come across 3 or 4 in so much debt or in dire need of help.

  18. Scott says:

    I’ve watched almost every episode. During the first several episodes, I really enjoyed the show. As time went on though, I could see the scripts start to shine through. Try this, watch 10-15 episodes and see if you can find 3 things that are completely different in each episode. You can’t. Every show is almost identical, the employees have the same problems and illnesses and they tell their story the SAME way. The companies always do the same rewards for those 4 employees.

    In a company of 5,000 people, 3 people get $50,000, a new house and a 2 week vacation?!?!?! How pissed are the people that are doing the same job?

  19. Wendel says:

    Originally scripted or not, the show has outrun its course and should be retired. Most have heard of Undercover Boss by now. Are the employees so stupid as to believe the reality show schtick they’re given? They must suspect something, and hope to be rewarded. Thus being on their best behavior and sharing their sob stories. Perhaps they indeed are wonderful people and hard workers, but so are many others. Why them? Why not others? There are so many people out there with just as genuine needs. Why squander thousands of dollars rewarding people for jobs that they should work hard at and take pride in in the first place?

    This is presuming the show at its best, being genuine.

  20. AJ Henderson says:

    I don’t think it is scripted, but it is certainly planned. I’m sure the producers of the show and possibly HR themselves go looking for situations to put the executive in. I don’t think it is coincidence that they find people with hard times. As for the changes, yes, the magic wand moments aren’t a fix for everyone, but it is a nice reward for someone who had an impact on helping the CXO see things more clearly.

    I know some CXOs and the fact is you have a business to run and can’t help everyone, but you can help the people that had a direct impact in helping you do your job. In some case’s the CXO even personally takes on things where they can’t help through the company, simply because of the personal impact. In a few cases, they do actually talk about actual systematic changes as well, such as expanding opportunity programs or addressing marking or education availability needs of the larger company.

    The problem is that a lot of the valuable information that a CXO would get out of this kind of experience really isn’t the kind of thing that makes good television. It isn’t tear jerking or make people feel good that some store that wasn’t being properly advertised is going to get more help with advertising or even that a company is going to make a concerted effort to make sure that people know about educational assistance they already offered. So they setup a few people who are in particularly needy situations and that have been going particularly above and beyond to be able to have the experience and also be able to reward them in a way they probably already had coming, though perhaps the full value wasn’t fully realized. Normally it would have come from a lower level person than the CXO, but in many cases, if it’s a real promotion, it is because it did actually make business sense. (The specialty assignments are more on the trivial side, but still a nice gesture since it doesn’t make business sense to promote, but you can at least shepherd them through trying their dream, just like they helped shepherd the CXO through the job that they do.

    Billing the show as a way for corporate executives to get in touch is probably a marketing mistake, but I think it is a little overly critical of the show to be quite so hard on it’s benefit, but then again perhaps that’s just the fact that I’m at a weird intersection of the A/V production fields and business so that I can see the other implications that don’t really make good TV.

  21. Clifton Webb says:

    I just made an attempt to watch an episode on Boston Market.
    I gave up after having my intelligence insulted for 10 minutes by the individual traing the corporate shill. Are we supposed to believe that an employee would speak badly about the customers and then let his image be shown on TV? Is he as self possessed and shallow in real life?
    The show is really bad.

  22. annie says:

    I agree with you 100%! That’s exactly how I think every time I watch the show.

  23. Chris Hart says:

    i’d like to talk to you about an idea i have, to “uncover” these sorts of shows. i very much resent that corporate media expects the majority of its viewers to believe what their presenting is true and whole hearted. half of the shows on truTV (mostly repo) are clearly scripted and fake. it gets my blood boiling. lets talk.

  24. Jay Norris says:

    I also despise this show. Any program billed to the public as real should be honest and truthful, two things that this program is not. They should be forced to post a large and honest preamble before the program begins explaining that it is basically a commercial for the “under cover” boss’s company and in no way does it represent just how poorly run these businesses are. I believe that PBS should do a real expose’ on this type of programing. If they did it would surely find that these programs are basically a paid for commercial by the company being featured and used by them as a tool to quell the real issues from the abused employees.

  25. Abdullah says:

    I have been watching this show for over six months and I doubt it to be really true! Paul, what you said is pretty legit. It seems everything is being planed and almost all the episodes are at the same scenario and with a few of the corp. or company employees are being showed and it gets too dramatic. I feel that most of America tv shows are too fake.

  26. Max Krakah says:

    I came here after a google search that was motivated by glimpsing the opening of the first episode of this show on Netflix. My BS detector went off right away. IT seemed false and smarmy right out of the box of tissues that one apparently should have when one watches it. I don’t like shows that manipulate emotions and tug at heartstrings. I am old enough to know that things are never as simple as a tv show makes them seem, that a good guy can be a bad guy without the production working in his favor, and that bad guys are more often than not not so bad when one knows the whole story, which they never show.

  27. ktgrayling says:

    Love your synopsis! I am here because this weeks’ episode royally pi***d me off! It was for a Massage Thereapy chain with the owner NEVER knowing anything more about massages except how to GET one! That made me mad. But, that is a specific person/business anger – not a whole show anger thing. Anyway… I do generally love the show. I think in a lot of ways it is good. There was one with a CXO that told the worker to stop expecting him to know how to do the job after 2 minutes of training. That seemed very real to me. There are more but that’s just the top of my head one. Personally, I think if they put in hidden cameras like on that one (sorry, name escapes me) but basically hidden cameras catching bad employees. Anyway, If they had hidden cameras then it would be a little more believable. I have had some pretty poor co-workers that would through their own mother under the bus if they thought they could get attention so the whole scripted rat-out-your-job idea is probably only half true. All that said – I will definetly keep watching. Scripted or not I always end up sniffling at the end because for those 4 or 5 people, their life changed.
    PS. Paul: Have you watched anymore episodes (besides those 3)in the last 4 years?

  28. tallgirl1952 says:

    Exactly why I stopped watching. If I worked at another facility of the same company and I saw someone get a promotion and $40k to pay off student loans and a paid vacation, I’d be pretty p-o’d.

    I also was disgusted that the Chicita boss did VERY LITTLE for the lady who walked invoices downstairs with difficulty compared to what he gave the men.

    I also can’t believe anyone falls for those really bad disguises.

  29. Mark says:

    All good points. Another reason to believe it is all contrived, is the willingness of these employees to out of the blue start talking about personal hardships, sickness, substance abuse etc. to some guy they just met an hour ago. Not to mention being filmed the whole time.

    For as long as the show has been running now, who in the world would not suspect you were on Undercover Boss. And so many of the hardships seem to be overly embellished or just plain made up.

    Another thought would be if you were a major Share Holder in one of these companies, and the COO just handed out $100,000.00 or more so he could have a feel good moment, you just might be thinking about replacing them at the next shareholders meeting.
    With a few exceptions it seems as if they limit themselves to giving 100,000.00 and split it between the featured employees, with one getting the lions share.

    I like watching the show, but it sure seems like the producers really look for employees who either have a hard luck story or just behave outrageously.
    Anything to boost the ratings.

  30. ChrisMohrSr says:

    Undercover Boss is unbelievable in many ways, but what I find astoundingly incomprehensible is the fact that nobody questions the camera crew.
    A boss decides to apply for a menial job in one of his stores or in one of his warehouse outlets so he can get honest opinons from employees about the way the business is run. He usually dons a disguise, which makes no sense since anyone he will be talking to has never seen him before in their life.
    He proceeds to gather information and opinions from the employees, who always give their honest opinion apparently. He finally reveals who he is and usually rewards some employee with an over the top gift of money or a trip to paradise.
    O.K. I can accept all the fairytale nonsense because it really warms the viewer’s heart to see some honest, hardworking soul receive generous compensation for his or her efforts.
    The reason I believe that Undercover Boss is an insult to the viewer’s intelligence is that no one ever questions the fact that here is an employee, usually hired to do some menial job, and with him is a cameraman, a director, a lighting director, a sound man with that huge boom microphone and all manner of gofers and technicians necessary to produce a quality TV show.
    Wouldn’t even one employee question this entourage? Apparently not, because every one acts as if the two of them are completely alone.
    I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas string of lights, but I’m not dim enough to buy an invisible camera crew.

  31. MB Becky Weaver says:

    Great review! I just tuned into a rerun of the bean-eating incident with that pig manager of Hooters. It made me so mad that I decided to check out what was out there, and found this. Superb writing, astute thinking, and I couldn’t have said it better myself! Thanks for posting, and I will look forward to seeing more of your stuff!

  32. sam says:

    I worked at Mastec 20yrs ago. I thought it was funny when the ceo was watching the guy energizing a tranformer. He had no 6ft hot stick or even a 6ft shot gun. Hello, its fake. That would have 7200 volts. It would have had a big ol fire or blown bbody parts.

  33. Benjamin Sargo says:

    There is no company where cameras and microphones can be used where they dont know whats going on. Anyone in the show has to sign a release and be compensated. Of course everybody knows what is going on from the beginning…totally fake.

  34. penny says:

    How come the american version get huge rewards for employees and the britsh version get hardly anything so typical everything has to be bigger and better in us versions of shows

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