What ‘Undercover Boss’ gets wrong

Reality TV and business don’t seem to be a good fit. The staged nature of the interactions — I am thinking of CNBC’s The Profit — is no more appealing than when non-business contestants are naked and on a beach.

There are exceptions. A great show that touches on business is Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, which is now in syndication. Drain an alligator pond? Clean out a sewer? Chip out a stopped-up cement mixer? Mike shows both how it’s done and how hard — and ultimately, how skilled — the work really is. And the fascination with these unseen worlds is lightened by Mike’s comedic gifts, while the show also honors the workers who do society’s worst work. (And Mike, I’m pretty sure, is no low-class guy — the show once showed him breaking into a brief, baritone operatic aria while stuck in a smelly but acoustically interesting oil tank.)

But in the annals of reality TV series, few have been as wrongheaded as CBS’s Undercover Boss. In the show, a company CEO puts on theatrical makeup and, posing as a new employee, joins frontline troops accompanied by a camera crew. After five-plus seasons, one suspects that everyone knows that the goofball in the bad hippie haircut is really the boss, but they have reasons to keep up the charade, as we will see.

So the new employee has to learn regular workers’ skills. But rather than showing how difficult the work is, the way Mike Rowe does, the show demeans the work by making the boss into a spectacular screw-up. He can’t flip a pizza, or key a cash register, or answer inquiries from retail customers. Sometimes it appears he doesn’t even try.

A recent episode featured a boss as an untrained warehouse worker getting on a forklift and operating it in an unsafe manner — going so far as to crash it into warehouse racking. The camera catches the three-story-high racks wavering ominously above the workers. This takes the CEO silliness to a new low — pretending as if any responsible company would let an untrained worker put his or others’ life and limb at risk.

When the undercover boss is not screwing up, he is idly gossiping, hearing about low company morale and the difficult lives of his minimum-wage co-workers. They, meanwhile, make sure the new guy knows that they themselves perform acts of heroism on behalf of the corporation.

Meanwhile, the so-called joke of the show is hearing the probably complicit co-workers whispering at how incompetent — wink, wink — the new guy is.

Then comes the reveal. The screw-up is really your boss! And he has been so touched by the dedication and personal travails of his camera-ready-and-wired-for-sound co-workers that he is going to give them lots of money to end their sorrows.

Thirty thousand to pay off college loans! Ten thousand for a wheelchair ramp for Grandma! Forty thousand for a down payment on a new house!

Then tears, hugs, and the co-workers declaiming their absolute surprise at their good fortune (more winks) and the goodness of the undercover boss.

Here is where the thoughtful watcher would wonder, “What about the low-wage worker next to these fortunate few?” The show not only lamely makes light of their work, it rewards a fortunate few while ignoring the school loans, car troubles, and grandmas of everyone else. Logically, it doesn’t work.



At a time when both political parties are expressing concern about income inequality, this show celebrates it in a particularly unseemly way. Get to know the CEO and you will be generously compensated. But toil in obscurity and you are out of luck.

What steams me most about Undercover Boss is that the company is used as a site to emphasize the wealth, power, and prestige of management. While wealth and power are logical consequences of career success, this show makes it seem that they are the only consequence. So the practical problems the workers bring up are never addressed. The boss rewards favored persons but never addresses the underlying business issues so fleetingly referred to in the course of the show. The company is just a backdrop for fake generosity, not a serious place where real work gets done.

I guess the reason this all bothers me so much is that I find that good managers don’t resort to selective and unseemly toadying. Good managers favor good business processes that work for all and don’t just look out for the welfare of preferred employees.

Some managers go so far as to make the jobs, and the lives, of employees easier. The CEO serves the company, not — as is so woefully portrayed on TV — the other way around. This is a powerful philosophy called servant leadership, which I’ll talk more about in my next post.

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