Undercover Boss: A Public Relations Headache?

February 08, 2010

As is customary for the Super Bowl network, CBS premiered one of its "exciting" new shows following the big game. Undercover Boss, an internal exposé of sorts, features top executives disguised as first time employees to learn what it's really like to work for a living. It is gives everything one might expect from a reality program. It also raises a number of public image issues and human resources liabilities. I am still not sure what these companies hope to gain from this experience.

In the premiere episode, Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, is on the front line of his trash business in an attempt to better understand how his company operates. He works with five employees in the company doing jobs from sorting recycling to cleaning portable toilets. Predictably, he isn't very good at any of the jobs he attempts and must confront some of the frustration created by his decisions on the corporate level. Apparently, eight hours on the job provides many epiphany moments.

The first problem is employee selection. In the show, they never explain how the five locations and employees were selected. I would imagine the company had that responsibility, so I would assume these employees were heavily vetted. It all appeared too perfect, as though Waste Management found five issues they could highlight and easily fix. For me, it wasn't just the five employees who were selected, but the thousands who weren't. Are we to believe these five are exceptions in the company or a microcosm of the company's employees? I am sure the answer is somewhere in between. Still, I am certain there are many other employees working as hard as the ones featured on the program who don't get anything out of Undercover Boss – unless you count the "task forces" created to improve employee conditions. I wonder how many letters corporate will receive from other workers who are also performing the jobs of three or four people, are underpaid and about to lose their homes.

This brings up another issue: Is it ever smart to handle human relations/personnel issues on national TV? Take, for example, the manager who gets publicly reprimanded for his implementation of corporate's policy about clocking in late. He barely gets to say a word, but has to sit there while the president of the company self-righteously paints him as some awful tyrant enforcing rules from behind a desk. Moreover, in the preview for an episode involving Hooters, a manager puts his waitresses through bizarre eating contests before they are allowed to go home – certainly not good for the manager or the company's image.

Another considerable problem is just how clueless Mr. O'Donnell appears to be. He is constantly amazed by how his corporate directives don't always work in practice the way they did in theory. Honestly, if you have to go undercover in your company to gauge how your policies are working, you are seriously failing. In the end, he promises his employees that he will change the way he manages, but never really gets into the how. Also, how would you feel as an employee knowing that CEOs come down, essentially, to spy on your work? Is that type of suspicion good for the company?

I would really like to know the internal review process weighing the pros and cons of going on this show. Much like Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, this is very much a double-edged sword. At least in the case of restaurants on Kitchen Nightmares, those businesses are desperate to avoid going bankrupt. Why would a successful company expose its sores? Without any data to back this up, the negative images of the company most likely outweigh any positive publicity received on this show. This is especially true during the saccharine finish to the show where employees are given raises and new roles in the company, which feels extremely hollow and self-serving.

Since Waste Management doesn't really deal with consumers (I don't choose my garbage men), their risk is probably low. However, I could see legitimate consumer relations issues for future episodes dealing with Hooters and 7-eleven. (As an aside, I worked at a 7-eleven while in college. I can tell you firsthand, it isn't a hard job. I am really interested to see how that one plays out.) Then again, Wal-Mart has a horrible reputation for mistreating employees, and its business seems OK.

Can anyone think of a reason why this might be a good idea? Would anyone out there ever advise a client to go on the show?

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.

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