I’m Underwhelmed with “Undercover Boss”

After the Super Bowl, CBS launched a new reality show called Undercover Boss. In the first episode, Larry O’Donnell, the President and COO of Waste Management, pretends to be a rank-and-file employee in order to get a better idea of what the front line employees in his company have to deal with.

On the face of it, it sounds like it would be compelling television — it was that. But it didn’t make me want to work for Waste Management.

Larry O'Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management, as the "Undercover Boss".

While it’s great that Mr. O’Donnell had these intentions, I wonder why he couldn’t just be himself and get the same feedback? Shouldn’t a manager — even a C-level executive — be able to get honest feedback from employees? The best ones do. But when a manager creates an environment where he or she isn’t open to constructive criticism, all they will ever hear from employees is what they want to hear.

One scene early in the show struck me as particularly ironic. When Mr. O’Donnell, who is working undercover as a helper on a garbage truck route, notices a white pick up truck following the garbage truck he is working on, his supervisor tells him that the pickup is being driven by a Waste Management “spy” who is following them to be sure they are staying on their route and keeping on schedule.

In explaining the pick up trucks, Mr. O’Donnell tells the audience that they are driven by route managers. He says, “I don’t want our drivers to feel like they’re being spied upon — because that’s not what this is about.”

Of course, he is saying this when he is in fact, “spying on” his employees.

That said, I think Mr. O’Donnell deserves some credit — he is trying to change his company. The closing scenes where a group of Waste Management front line employees were shown a “reveal” of Mr. O’Donnell’s true identity were certainly well received and I believe showed the genuine affection that Waste Management employees have for Mr. O’Donnell.

But let’s be honest about what this is — a huge advertising and PR win for the companies who participate. For me, the whole thing was a bit too contrived.

Mary McNamara, the television critic for the Los Angeles Times said it better than me:

Now, I’m a sucker for any show that features people doing actual work (chefs, stylists and event planners don’t count) and no doubt these five souls, who come off as a genetic cross of Will Rogers, John Henry and Emma Goldman, are just as extraordinary as they seem. I’m even willing to buy the notion that they have no clue whom O’Donnell is and think they’re being filmed for a documentary about entry-level jobs.

What I’m not willing to buy is that the workers O’Donnell chose to spend time with were not the product of an extensive and exhaustive search of the company’s 45,000 employees for the most TV-ready. The trash picker with the kidney condition? The multi-tasking mom who’s about to lose her house? To which she invites O’Donnell? The sanitation worker so beloved by the families on her route that a mentally challenged woman just happens to have a letter of appreciation in her hand the very day the camera crews arrive?

The marketing and public relations teams at Waste Management are making the most of this opportunity. Not only did they create a special “Undercover Boss” section of the company’s website, (pictured above) they also placed stories in papers around the country, including The Star-Ledger, The Wall Street Journal and The San Jose Mercury-News.

My question for the internal communications and media relations folks out there: if the producers invited your company’s CEO to be an “undercover boss” would you recommend she or he do it?


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