If a Boss Has to Go Undercover, They Aren’t Much of a Boss at All

Article main image
Mar 17, 2011

Here’s the only big surprise about the big flap erupting this week over the television “reality” show Undercover Boss: that it took so long for a flap to ensue and expose this show for what it is – a management and workplace fairy tale.

Here’s the gist of what happened, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog:

The CBS show “Undercover Boss” is supposed to be feel-good television. The rich boss finds out that it’s hard work to load a truck or handle customer calls. And then he (it’s almost always a he) bestows gifts of raises and promotions and training to the hand-picked models of fabulousness who helped guide his way.

But on Sunday, the “boss” featured on the show was not actually the boss and had no power to offer promotions, raises or training, said United Van Lines officials. It became an issue after complaints arose that promotions and training were apparently given to the men on the show, but not to the woman who complained about the company being “an all-boys club.” She received a trip to Las Vegas and money for her daughter’s wedding.”

The problem with Undercover Boss is that, A) it’s “reality” television; and B) it presents top executives as clueless dolts who don’t seem to have the vaguest notion of how their businesses operate or what people working for them actually do.

Why reality doesn’t happen on reality TV

Let’s deal with these two issues one by one, shall we?

First, understand that reality television has little to do with reality as most humans would define it. Here’s what it is, as I wrote last year:

I enjoy a lot of reality TV … Survivor, American Idol and even Donald Trump’s The Apprentice (the original version, before the preening C-list celebrities got involved) all are fun and entertaining in their own way, but let’s be serious about this. What we actually see broadcast in these television shows is about as real as Santa Claus. It’s only reality in the sense that these shows have real people in them, but don’t mistake them for real life. Reality television is filmed and carefully edited to get ratings and NOT to resemble anything a reasonable person might consider a real-life situation.”

Wikipedia had this very spot-on description of reality television as well:

Reality television frequently portrays a modified and highly influenced form of reality, utilizing sensationalism to attract viewers and so to generate advertising profits. Participants are often placed in exotic locations or abnormal situations, and are sometimes coached to act in specific scripted ways by off-screen “story editors” or “segment producers,” with the portrayal of events and speech manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through editing and other post-production techniques.”

So, problem No. 1 with Undercover Boss is that it purports to show a “reality” that probably doesn’t exist anywhere, at any business, at any time. Some of the facts may be correct, but in the end it’s just “reality” television, so caveat emptor if you tune in.

Why so many clueless bosses?

The bigger problem I have with Undercover Boss is the unstated premise of the show — that there are so many clueless and out-of-touch CEOs and senior executives running businesses with a lack of basic knowledge about what people in their employ do, or the challenges they have in getting it done.

Does this happen in the non-“reality” world? I’m sure it does but for the most part, clueless executives who don’t understand the basic fundamentals of the business and how their workforce drives it ahead don’t last very long.

A typical episode of Undercover Boss falls into this all-too-predictable pattern:

  • Out-of-touch executive goes undercover at his company to see how life is for the average low-level worker.
  • Out-of-touch executive secretly gets to work in the trenches and is shocked by how demanding the jobs are.
  • Out-of-touch executive is floored by how hard people work, and by how many of them have toil and trouble in their lives, sometimes caused by corporate policies coming from the corporate office.
  • Out-of-touch executive has a revelation: He or she must learn from his experience and do something to improve the lives of the good people they worked alongside of.

This week’s problem: The boss isn’t the boss at all

Yes, that’s the pattern, but the problem with last week’s episode is that the CEO of United Van Lines isn’t the boss of anyone he worked with because “the people featured in the episode were all employed by independent contractors,” United spokesperson David LaValle told the Journal, “United is represented across the country by 400 independent and operated agencies,” said LaValle, who himself is an independent contractor for United. “So they’re not employees. He is not really their boss.”

Well, that’s a basic problem isn’t it? Hard to call a show Undercover Boss when the boss is not really the boss of anyone in the show.

But that simply masks the larger issue that any manager, executive, or HR professional can see about this show from a mile away: a boss who is this clueless about the basic nuts and bolts of their organization has no place being a boss at all.

If I were any of these bosses featured on Undercover Boss, I would be terminally embarrassed by my lack of knowledge about how the company operates and how Joe or Josephine Average in my workforce gets their job done.

Have they not read a management book, taken any college classes on the subject, or attended a management seminar? Have they never heard of Peter Drucker or the concept of management by walking around (or walking about, if you’re in the British Commonwealth)?

Of course not, because there wouldn’t be a show to broadcast if they did.

So, remember this: Undercover Boss is a workplace reality show that doesn’t show real workplaces, or sometimes, even real bosses. Some of the facts are real, but like the movie The Social Network, the show takes a lot of liberties with them.

Why not more appreciation for rank-and-file workers?

And there’s one more thing, as I asked when I wrote about this show last year. It’s as relevant a question now as it was then. I’d love an answer, if anyone has one:

Why does it take a TV reality show to get the honchos to show appreciation for people deep down in their organizations who are living, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “lives of quiet desperation”?

You won’t find that point addressed anywhere on Undercover Boss. It’s just as well, because you can make a great case that executives who are this clueless about their workforce shouldn’t be leading any organization. But that’s addressed in another reality show you may be familiar with. It stars a guy named Donald Trump.”