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January 20, 2010

Uncovering an Undercover Boss

By Elaine Viets

Reality TV has hit the toilet. For real.

The new CBS series, "Undercover Boss," follows "high-level chief executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file of their companies.

"Each week a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company," CBS.com says. Undercover-boss

Watch the video: http://tinyurl.com/yeqb8xm

The companies include Waste Management, 7-Eleven, White Castle, and lest we get too real, Hooters. (Hey, it’s television. The network needs boobs for the boob tube.)

I’ll enjoy watching a highly paid executive cleaning a Porta-Potty. It may be one job a boss is qualified to do. Or not. CBS says Waste Management's undercover boss, Larry O’Donnell, got fired "for the first time in his life." The employee didn’t know he was firing the company president.

I have trouble with that particular reality. Putting on a uniform and growing a beard like undercover boss O’Donnell did for this photo won’t make him look like one of the guys. Big bosses have as much chance of blending in as my six-foot self at a Little People convention.

I say this as the daughter and niece of blue collar workers. My father and uncle carried lunchboxes to work at the electric company. My cousin works for the phone company.

Here are ways working stiffs can spot a high-level undercover boss.

(1) The hands

Most high-level bosses have manicures. Many wear clear nail polish. Ordinary workers do not get manicures, except maybe the Hooters servers. Workers would be laughed out of the locker room if they had manicured nails or smooth, uncallused hands.

(2) The bodies

The bosses have lightly bronzed skin, if they get any sun at all.

Real workers are not evenly browned, like a roast turkey. Outdoor workers get severely sunburned on their necks and arms. They have "farmers’ tans." The burned skin is below the sleeve and above the shirt neck. Their chests and upper arms stay fishbelly pale. At least the white workers. And yes, brown-skinned people get sunburned.

Most workers do not have sculpted gym muscles. They have arms like braided rope from heavy lifting. As they age, they may have beer bellies from their favorite beverage. Tailoring won’t hide the fat.

(3) The smiles

Look at those boss teeth: pearly white and even. Perfect for employee ass-chewing. Unless the company has a good dental plan or the workers are blessed by Mother Nature, employees do not have perfect teeth. As they age, they may have missing teeth. My dad had a gap in his smile after he broke a tooth. He wouldn’t spend the money for a crown.

(4) The posture

Hard labor is back-breaking. When I worked as a hotel maid for "Murder with Reservations" I hobbled around and popped Motrim like M&Ms. A working person, especially one who’s thirty-plus, feels the aches and pains, the stress on their joints. The job literally wears them down.

Bosses stand tall and confident. Executives have stress, but it doesn’t take the same physical and financial toll. When O’Donnell got "fired" from his undercover job, he went back to his cushy office and high salary. If he’s booted from THAT job, his golden parachute will ensure a soft landing.

I do have a question about the Hooters boss, Coby G. Brooks. Will this knocker nabob serve food while he wears skimpy clothes? Get his CEO ass grabbed instead of kissed?

Please, please put some reality in this reality show.


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I've seen this show advertised. I thought it was an interesting concept IF the CEO learned anything from his time among the worker bees. I bet anything that most of these bosses have never worked at the lower levels of their companies and have no ideas what is faced on a daily basis. I'll probably give it a watch at least once.

I would like to see CBS's chief executive audition for any one of his network's shows. In some low-level guest star role, so that he has to read first for the casting director, get notes from her/him, go to the audition, not be let onto the lot because he's not big enough to rate an actual parking space, drive back outside, find street parking, walk onto the lot in some dorky costume that he pulled together, wait for 90 minutes with 32 desperate-to-work actors, many of them small noisy children with ambitious mothers, read on tape across from some wooden assistant to somebody who's not only the wrong gender, but has a reading disability, and then have his work critiqued by a roomful of people who talk about him in the 3rd person and conclude that he's not very talented and perhaps might consider either acting classes or the possibility of leaving showbiz altogether. Now that's an episode I'd watch.

Except that to make it real, he'd have to passionately want the job, with its 3 sad little lines in one unmemorable scene, and cry all the way back to his car.

You got it, Elaine.
Harley, so true. THAT would be a reality show!
Sometimes, even if the boss has done the job that you are asked to do, the level of understanding is still not there. I once got a completely unfair and unneeded 'if you don't improve, we won't keep you here' talk from a boss after some evaluations were skewed by one bitter member of the evaluating team. What the boss didn't know was that I had read the evaluations that the boss had received for doing the same job, which were even worse! It was so 'do what I expect, even if I can't meet my own expectations', took me a while to respect that person again.

Growing up in a family business, I learned that the boss should know how to do everybody's job.

Even as a young lawyer, I was the one who could fix the copy machine.

In this country, we have an 'executive class' of people who have never worked for an hourly wage. I've said it before and I'll say it again - everyone should wait tables and everyone should work as a secretary. This goes double for politicians.

Elaine, spot on, as always. The concept of the show fascinates me, I'll admit, but the 'reality' of a "Reality Show" is way off the mark.

Harley, I'd love to see A Network President in THAT one! We won't even talk about writers. "This is good, really really good. I mean, you've got a real understanding of the characters, your dialogue is terrific, I mean really really terrific. (pause) But can you make it 17% scarier?" (Actual comment from a studio reader.) Better still, "Your dialogue sparkles, just sparkles. The story is nice, tight, and solid. The plot is fresh, never been done before, and this would make an absolutely incredible episode. Unfortunately, it does not meet the show's needs at this time. Best of luck in your writing career." (Actual rejection from story editor.)

This guy got fired? (shrug) Okay, it happens. Now, let's see a scene where he goes home and tells his family. Let's see the scene where he worries about losing his home, his car, and his children go hungry. Let's see him in the Unemployment Office, let's see him sending out resumes. The scene I really want to see is the one where the series of phone interviews goes well, he's flown back to Corporate HQ, and the first person he has to pass in the gauntlet is a young MBA, who can't SPELL "MBA", and when the youngster walks in the room and sees the Interviewee, a nice tight close-up on the kid's reaction when he sees the gray hair and beard of the interviewee. Maybe a laugh track when the kid's shoulders literally slump, his whole attitude changes, the interview is brief and cursory, and the Interviewee is curtly dismissed, then shuttled off for a five hour wait in the airport before the next flight home is called.

Ooops. Sorry. Need coffee, obviously.

To Kathy's comment, I'll add bartender. THERE's a lesson in Human Nature if I ever saw one....

Bartender? Oh, you mean alcohol-based counseling, William.
Harley, I spent time in the TV wonderland on a local level. Oh, those meetings. Yeah, let's let the head of CBS become an anonymous writer and try to pitch a show for sweeps week. Especially if the station's numbers are already down. And said writer was brilliant two ratings periods before. Suddenly, all your work is junk.

Hmm, I wonder if NBC head Jeff Zucker could even get a job as janitor, now that he's pulled off some of the most boneheaded moves in the history of television. And yes, if he gets the plug pulled on him, he will get a nice, cushy golden parachute. What a mess he's made of NBC, and TV, in general.

Harley, why anyone would want to be an actor is totally beyond me. That sounds awful. And it makes me even more glad that I gently steered my acting-aspired middle daughter into engineering, instead. Of course it helped that the high school director never gave her a role, too.

"Hollywood is a town where they stab you in the back, then have you arrested for carrying a concealed weapon." - Raymond Chandler

Ah, Karen -- people do it because every now and then someone says "yes!" and then it's heaven. And because every now and then it's not 3 sad little lines in a bad episode of a bad TV show, it's Lady MacBeth.

I just laughed and shook my head when I saw the ads for Undercover Boss. One more hour spent reading or watching quality BBC drama for me. I agree with Elaine. No corporate honcho could pass muster as far as callused hands, tan lines at the hair line,etc. I blame it all on Survivor. "Wow! CBS has a hit with that 'reality' show about being stranded on an island(or was it in the jungle?)! Let's do THAT instead of renewing that critically acclaimed series that costs so much more to produce." The problem is, people like to watch this stuff and believe it's for real. Just this past weekend I had a customer come in and asked us to direct her to the books (yes, plural) written by Richard Castle. She couldn't believe there was only "Dead Heat". Castle doesn't even pretend to be a reality show :o)
Me? I've had bosses who didn't even understand what I did tell me how to do it!
I give Undercover Boss about three weeks.

William, I'm with you 100%1

There is one advantage to Domino's. Almost all of the execs worked in a store at one time. All of the franchisees worked at least a year as a store manager. It used to be funny. Business Week or some other national magazine would run a story about how few Domino's franchises fail compared to other restaurants. The next week we would see a stream of doctors walk in to find out how to buy a franchise. We would hand them a driver application and tell them they needed a year of making pizzas 50 to 70 hours a week. In a huff, out to the BMW and off the lot.

How do you hide the new guy with the camera crew?

It's funny, but the first thing I thought of as I read this, before I saw your list, was "their hands will give them away." Also, their marshmallow-soft bodies.

When I got out of college with no work prospects, I worked for a year doing physical labor. Apparently, the rest of the crew on the dock had bet that I would not last the first day. By the end of the year, I had gotten rid of 25 pounds of college fat and had some real biceps. (A plus--despite my size, I know how to move large home appliances.) Of course, one semester in law school took care of all of that.

Alan, that's a good point. Why do the worker bees think they're being filmed? Surely that many people can't be that dumb that they won't figure this out.

The sad truth is that "reality" shows and "news" shows are the least expensive to produce, which is why they proliferate like bacteria on a daycare toy.

And that's also why soap operas are doomed. Those large ensemble casts, with weekly paychecks? Very pricey these days, I'm sad to say.

Harley, I guess hope springs eternal, eh? And lucky for us that so many said "Yes" to you!

When I worked for a Pulitzer paper, the heir to the Pulitzer empire did a stint at the paper as a cub reporter. He was a sweet man and a decent writer.
The editors said the heir would be treated like every reporter. But I never saw a city editor leap over a desk to hand any other new reporter a phone book.

I kind of think it's a good idea. Although I'm with ya--what do the worker bees think the camera crew is for?

But if the point is to let the boss know what he/she is asking the employees to do and how it fees, I think theoretically that's a great idea. There's no way to understand what it's like to be in the trenches unless you're there.

I really wish I could be more specific, but you never know who's reading this.. :-)

I'd love, and I mean LOVE, to see my Dean do my job. For a week. During pre-registration.

Here's a better reality show: the execs do the worker bee jobs and live like the worker bees for a year - same salaries, benefits (or lack thereof), etc.

I hate "reality" TV of this sort.

Once again I am relieved that we have no broadcast TV. The only series we watch are those we order from Netflix: West Wing (2nd viewing), Boston Legal, and Foyle's War are the only ones to have caught our interest.

I watch a lot of TV, but I don't watch many "reality" shows. Basically just American Idol and DWTS. I like the concept of this show, but I can't see how it can be done "realistically".

I actually saw the tail-end of the episode with the waste management boss. From what I understand, they give a fake reason for the cameras (sort of like Bobby Flay's ThrowDown.

As for the boss that I saw, that provided a back story for him and left him to the workers. He had to do everything, and at the end of the show he met with all of his trainers and commended them for doing the job that he got fired from. He was able to acknowledge the difficulties and was better prepared to understand their working conditions. So he learned...

Other than that, not a lot of reality tv for me. Well, Cash Cab. ;)

OK, I admit it. I love to watch "America's Biggest Loser." I watch it while I work out, which is some justification. Maybe.

I have heard so many good managers say that any boss should be ready, willing, and able to do each job he asks others to do, and to pitch in and do so when needed. It builds mutual respect and real team spirit. When the manager in a restaurant cleans off a table, it sends a message about how important clean tables are.
Our custodians said they had a good idea of classroom discipline by the state of the classrooms at the end of the day . . . and if one of my students justified a mess by saying, "that's what the custodians get paid for," I would show a less-than-pretty side of my self.
We also used to discuss the potential fate of administrators and critics of "public schools" if we were to invite them to take our place for one full day (especially if we omitted my regular "you must be perfect for the substitute" speech). If that reality show is ever made, I'd probably watch. . .
BTW, all the jokes and criticisms of "public school" -- certification requirements and standards are HIGHER for public school teachers. The big difference is that public schools accept and attempt to educate ALL students with all their problems and needs. Huzzah to my friends in the trenches.

I'm pretty sick of reality television. If I want to see reality, I'll just walk out my front door. I mean, isn't the idea of TV to entertain? Bring back the writers!

Oh,l Love Cash Cab!I had no idea about it, and saw it by chance.

Holly, you've watched The Wire, right? Must see, in my family..

And hey, I know exactly how the worker bees would recognize the boss. He/she would be the only one not complaining about the boss!!

I do watch Biggest Loser and the dance shows but not the rest of reality tv. Okay, maybe I have watched Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs . . .

I wouldn't want my boss to do my job for a day. I really wish he would do HIS job for a day. Shows up sometime between 10 & 12 and is usually gone by 2. The only time he is here until 5 is when he has family obligations in the city.

Has anyone had a Dirty Job? I used to work as a labourer in a pulp/paper and saw mill. Yep, I have shoveled gunk I have no idea what it was . . . not poo but ?? Didn't they do an episode of Dirty Jobs where Mike's boss had to do some work?

Regarding so called "reality" television, I'm pretty sure it's what Newton Minow, then (1961) head of the FCC, was talking about when he called called most television programming a "vast wasteland".

Me, I'll watch the reality on Animal Planet and Science Channel. Oh, and Good Eats.

I admit to watching earlier episodes of The Bachelor and trying to convince myself that indeed these people would find true love. It made for conversation with my kids. God knows I wanted to feel a part of all things media.
I think that it is ironic that when the execs were plying Jay Leno with a show that would in effect destroy dramas they in fact created the biggest realty show in tv history. They have thrust Jay and Conan into an almost fraternal sibling rivalry where the older brother eventually throws over his snot nose brother and the ratings are soaring. Hmmm. I have to wonder if the Tv fairies are dancing in glee and I also wonder if this seems like a slice of The Godfather.

I read somewhere that even though Leno was tanking in the ratings, his show still cost NBC less than airing a drama, so it wasn't losing money. It was the local affiliates screaming about losing viewers for their nightly news shows after his show that made them finally pull the plug. Apparently the nightly news shows are where local stations make much of their money.

Hank -- we tried the Wire. But I'm a middle-class 62 yo Californian and the F-bombs wouldn't stop. And it was so dark.
I like I guess that I like a little polish on the witty repartee.

Well, they do have the Waste Management guy clean a porta-potty and sort refuse. That thas to be dirty, unless they pre-cleaned it for him.

Sarah, Lying to Be Perfect showed up on my tv grid and I sent the message to Tivo your show. I am getting excited to see your movie. All the best!

I'm guilty of loving Project Runway, Amazing Race, and the ones that feature dance.

My younger daughter and I share our thoughts and opinions on PR and have a good time together. It always gets hubby out of the room when that comes on, so we usually watch after 9 when he turns in.

A former coworker used to go to the Waste Mgmt medical waste site when they had communication problems. The workers referred to it as the Big @#$%ing Incinerator and you wouldn't want to be wearing anything but thick soled, cover the foot to mid-calf boots because of the questionable goo on the ground. That's one job I wouldn't want to have.

The 14 yo also saw the trailer on Lifetime for Lying to be Perfect and said she wants to watch it. I filled her in on the back-story and she said "why would they change such a good title?"

Unfortunately I wasn't able to give her a good answer.

DebbraSue, why do I suspect they didn't send the big boss to the Big Incinerator?

There was a show a couple of years ago where the CEO of several companies went and did the jobs for a week or so. The CEO of California Pizza Kitchens, bussed tables, did dishes, made food, waited tables, seated people, mopped floors, then went back and told the upper management what he saw that the stores needed. If Joe DePinto does all the work of a regular 7-11 cashier and deals with the rude people that think rules don't apply to them, that is an episode I want to see. I want to see him do my job.

Marie " Jay and Conan into an almost fraternal sibling rivalry where the older brother eventually throws over his snot nose brother and the ratings are soaring."
I was just thinking of that last night -- the back and forth jokes and accusations about this almost seem scripted, as if the whole thing was orchestrated as a ratings grab.

School custodians have a dirty and dangerous job. Some of the chemicals they use are really harsh. I walked across a floor that had wax stripper on it (having been told it was ok to do) to get something from my classroom in the summer. When one of the female custodians saw me coming back out, she warned me that my shoes would be ruined, and shortly after, the soles just disintegrated. I'm very glad not to have to work with those chemicals every day.

I had a Dirty Job. I worked at McDonalds. 'Nuff said. That was lots dirtier than mucking out horse stalls!

Fast food work is also dangerous. I saw so many students with serious burns from the deep fryers and cuts from slicing machines.

My dirtiest job was cleaning toilets as a hotel maid. Most men can't aim.

I must defer to Laura in PA regarding the leadin shows to the news affiliates. This indeed played a big role in the shuffle of Jay and Conan.
Fifteen years ago I would avoid the late tv news out of fear of having nightmares when I went to bed. Call me an ignorant news slut but I did everything that I could to avoid nightly news. Repeat episodes of Friends and Seinfeld lulled me to sleep. Flashforward to this decade and I have become a news junkie. I have opinions and can debate issues as if I could equal the famous news pundits. Oh yes, I now live in the land of news. Am I happier, more confident and informed? In my own mind maybe I am. But sometimes I long for the old days when Joey on Friends asked "How you doing?" I don't know, Joey, I just don't know!

Fifteen years ago, TV news was more in the "if it bleeds, it leads" mode, Marie. You may have become more mature or the news coverage may have improved.

I worked in a grocery store for 5+ years, and the best boss I had was Bob, who jumped in to help every time we got busy. Doing whatever-sacking, mopping, emptying trash, anything. A nice change from the boss that sat in the office that overlooked everything. Which one do you think had a better grip on how things were going? Bob. And he was the one we all were sad to see move away.

Elaine, thanks for the insightful comments. I admit age might equal maturity however, being a little ditzy has impeded my progress at times LOL. News competition might have sanitized some of the news coverage. Now I feel that I need to study the history of tv broadcasting. It sure would put the right perspective on this subject. Thanks for a great blog today. I always wondered how to define a blue collar worker vs a white collar worker because the drudgery involved in both categories sometimes seemed equal in many ways.

I can't pass up this opening from Marie. Utah Phillips defined the difference between white and blue collar workers as a false division to confuse workers and keep them unorganized. "If you get a paycheck and answer to a boss, you are working class."
It was http://www.utahphillips.org/ but I had trouble connecting to that just now . . .

Mary, this is so great! Thanks for sharing his philosophy and website. We are having torrents of rain here so I need to focus on things to keep me from worrying about family members getting home from work safely.

Holding your family in the light!

Thanks, Mary!

The girl that wrote this article doesn't know what she is talking about. I am in business school right now and a lot of my teachers are retired execs or consultants. Nothing is more stressful than that kind of work. I was talking with my HR prof. and she was telling me about a CEO she worked for who visibly aged while deciding whether or not to go ahead with lay offs. One prof. I have retired from a financial firm (yeah those villians) believe me he never had a manicure and actually I'd say his main detracting feature is his teeth. His life before was far harder than most of us are used to. He spent his time either on planes, in hotels, or in restaurants. He was almost never home. The average executive workweek is between 60-80 hours a week. Please if you don't know what you are talking about, do not pretend that you do.

How can i have them do my company?

Maybe if you guys spent less time complaining about things and more time trying to change your situation, you wouldn't be so unhappy. But then what would you post in forums about?

After reading these comments, I had to write this. I can tell these comments were left from people who never had to deal with Waste Management.
About 2 months after this show, I called Larry O Donnell. They told me to send him an e mail and gave me his e mail address. They said he answers all e mails. I sent it to Larry O Donnell about a very serious issue my parents had in the past as well as now with Waste Management. I received an auto reply stating out of the office. Since than I have not received anything. From what I can tell, Larry O Donnell is a fake and so was his performance. He made a few concessions on the show to make it look as if he or this company cares only to promote business. For all I know, even the concessions were fake. A better way to put it, all he did was talk trash !
If you need a trash company, find a small one who needs the business and will give you better service.

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