Undercover Boss: What it reveals.
Did you see (Great Wolf Resorts CEO) Kim Schaefer’s recent television debut on Undercover Boss, when she agreed to go “undercover” for CBS for a week to pose as Chris Miller, a new employee of Great Wolf Lodge? She first went to the location in Grapevine, Texas versus her closer-to-home spot in Wisconsin Dells, where she’d be recognized, with a tale of being a stay-at-home mom re-entering the workplace.
Supposedly unsuspecting employees were told she was selected to be the subject of a television documentary on entry-level jobs at Great Wolf. It wasn’t a lie, exactly, so much as a “cover story” to explain the television crew following her around, because hey, everybody knows corporations don’t mislead employees unless it’s for a good reason, like TV ratings.
Great Wolf has 11 lodge resorts in the U.S. and Canada, and a Blue Harbor resort in Sheboygan; the storyline took her to two of the resorts. I felt sorry for Kim Schaefer upfront — let me be clear about that — because regardless of what she discovered about her company, or did to improve it during this “amazing experience” week, the show is edited to serve an agenda (i.e., CEO looks like a fool, discovers workers are smarter and/or more adept than they are, and changes corporate culture as a result). I knew, therefore, that this very smart woman would take a bullet or two that she’d likely never see coming.
Sure enough, after the edit cuts, viewers watched as Kim first struggled with a kid’s “Cub Club” cooking lesson. The employee assigned as a mentor for her wondered aloud, out of her earshot, why it was that a stay-at-home mom didn’t know the first thing about baking. Nor did Kim seem to have a very natural rapport with the hotel guests’ kids.
Yet, after knowing her a few hours and being disappointed with her workplace performance, the employee tearfully shared with Kim that she was struggling financially because her husband had lost his job of 23 years, and they had no idea how they were going to pay for their daughter’s college tuition the next year… (hint, hint).
Later, posing as a new front desk hire, Kim handled an irate guest at the front counter. Kim said offhandedly to the lady, mid-check-in, “Are you ready to go to the water park?” “Yeah, we’re ready to do this, but there’s … you,” the woman responded pointedly, obviously annoyed by the lengthy time “Chris” needed for point-by-point instruction with the registration software.
“That was the longest day ever,” Kim later sighed, collapsing in a cut-rate hotel room chair. There, she wondered how her employee mentor — the front desk clerk with the bad knees who was worried about surgery because she couldn’t afford the time off to heal (hint, hint) — could do it day after day.
Next day, she helped oversee a waterpark play area, helping the guy who trained lifeguards. The first water emergency was an “AFR” (Accidental Fecal Release) — code phrase for “poop in the water.” Seems that job wasn’t any more glamorous than the previous two. Guess who was told to fish it out by hand? (Don’t those places have nets for that yet?)
Soon Kim was sweating in the 84-degree temperature maintained by the park. She quickly tired on the job, complaining that she didn’t like going up water park stairs. She asked if it was time for a break yet (it wasn’t). She complained again about the heat. And again. If she did something right, we didn’t see it. It made for another challenging workday, complete with a story from her employee trainer about how he wanted to be a pilot, and, oh yes, by the way, he had two fathers growing up, neither of whom were good role models nor a help to him in achieving his dream of being a pilot (hint, hint).
Then Kim went to Mason, Ohio, to pose as a new-hire waitress in the lodge there. She forgot to ask for a drink order for the first table served, and then was flustered about which table was ordering next. She asked if a family at a third table if they wanted their check, but the man reminded her that they had yet to be brought their food. Oops. Oops. Oops. Again, if she did something right (even one thing) that day, we didn’t see it.
“Some people are just not cut out to be in the service industry,” her underling trainer sagely remarked to the videographer. But, like the other supervisors, this one also was quick to tell “Chris” her personal, very sad family saga (death of a child) on camera, eliciting later on-camera tears from her CEO.
The tables are turned….
Then the tables were turned, literally and figuratively, when Kim called those very same mentor employees into her real VIP office at corporate headquarters to reveal her authentic persona of CEO. They came in “real nervous” but TADA! What an opportunity for the bumbling CEO to become an enlightened fairy godmother, granting their fondest wishes with different job opportunities and raises (and time off for knee surgery, college tuition for a kid, and flight lessons).
Pass the Kleenex. That’s right. More tears for uninitiated viewers. Higher ratings for the show. And, for viewers like me, the reward is also the closing segment, which is always a hoot.
Yes “a hoot,” as in segue to Hooters….
After watching Kim’s episode and rating it a “3” on a scale of 1 to 3 (“lame,” “less lame” or “satisfyingly funny”), I nonetheless personally most liked the program wherein the Hooter’s CEO, Coby Brooks, went undercover and witnessed a male manager making up outlandish and humiliating “games’ for the ladies to compete in to earn time off. (The guy later was shocked to be ordered to go through some company sensitivity training — that was the funny part.)
Then there was another “3” rating for the show where a garbage crew mogul was surprised to learn that there was no bathroom along the route for his female driver, so she carried a tin can with her — this nice woman who befriended her Down’s Syndrome customers. This last fact made him particularly teary, since he had a special needs daughter himself. (What were the chances of that, do you think?)
The CEOs featured on Undercover Boss reliably wind up feeling really sorry for the good but oftentimes overlooked people their companies hire; they are distressed to hear the hard-luck stories about what it takes to survive in low-wage jobs. Almost all of them really do wind up crying on camera as a result. Kim was the first woman featured on the program, and since we don’t expect male corporate executives to be crybabies, I wondered what their golf buddies thought (or said) after the shows aired.
Another equally strong story line running through the show is that the bosses aren’t capable of even the most mundane tasks, like feeding buns into a packaging machine. The head of 7-11, CEO Joseph DePinto, couldn’t make a pot of coffee. The head of Direct TV, Mike White, couldn’t screw in a bolt: “You have some fast learners, and you have some who ain’t never gonna catch on,” his low-paid employee mentor explained.
White’s next mentor, supposedly chosen for her skill handling incoming calls at their service center, winces when he calls his first (female) caller “sir.” This employee has to quickly type on a screen every word he should say to the caller to save the customer relationship. “I know, I screwed up,” he admitted afterwards. But, in true Undercover Bosses storyline style, she soon let him know (over an on-camera snack during a break together) that she was raised in foster care and is going to school while working a full-time job at a low wage. (Hint, hint.)
That last fact made me wonder if that wasn’t why she was really selected to be his “first day on the job” mentor, because hey, there was no surprise to a loyal viewer like me that she had a hard life. We count on those disclosures to mess with a CEO’s head, and we are never disappointed because we know that later the CEO will fall apart, alone with a TV camera person in a cheap hotel room, where they will admire aloud the dreams of their underpaid and overworked minions.
Kim’s episode’s editor followed that script, too.
Then, in the last segment, the exhausted (but enlightened) CEO handles all of that cognitive dissonance — being the leader of the evil empire and all — by making tearful amends by giving those lucky mentor employees personal gifts or promotions, and promises to change the workplace culture due to their in-the-trenches insights. DePinto gave a Russian immigrant truck driver keys to a 7-11 store (his American dream). Okay, that show even made a cynic like me tear up a little, but only that one!
Remember the foster-care girl? Direct TV’s CEO gave her a $10,000 scholarship for school and tearfully confided [on camera] that his dad died prematurely too, so he also was raised without a dad. He then offered to mentor her a couple times a year going forward, on, well — CEO-type stuff, I guess, because he didn’t know anything about her job to possibly mentor her on — or so the editing of the program would lead us to believe. I gave White a “3” for that (edited) performance alone because it made me laugh out loud.
TIVO Undercover Boss yourself. At the end of a long workweek, well-deserved chuckles while watching a well-intentioned CEO’s “hardest week ever” is worth a “3.” It’s the show I hate to love, or vice versa — or possibly both.
Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.