“Undercover Boss”: More TV Class Unrealities

Undercover Boss is a prime time reality show on CBS.  The concept is that the CEO of a company is disguised and then goes “undercover” for a week in his/her company doing the low wage work on the front lines to see how things really are.  Typically, bosses are white men, although there have been some women and some people of color.  Most often it’s a CEO, although on occasion it will be somebody else from the executive suite.

The “boss” usually goes to four locations, trying four different jobs.  A typical show will show one “problem” employee, and three wonderful employees with very moving stories.  At the end of the episode, the boss reveals him/herself, and then tells each employee what actions will be taken as a result of the time spent with the employee.  The “problem” employee is usually given some training and a second chance, and the employees with the compelling stories are usually given money to “solve” their problems.  Occasionally, employees are offered mentoring, or encouragement into a more challenging position.  Rarely, systemic changes are made.  Most of the time, the bosses feel deeply for individual employee stories and want to make their lives better, but the bosses don’t seem to make the additional leap and realize that life is tough for ALL of their low-wage employees.

On the plus side, we get to see low-wage workers as they are in their jobs, and to hear them in their own words, albeit the words selected by the show’s editors.  We get to see the bosses do the low-wage work and find out that these jobs are HARD.  Many of them fail miserably in their undercover positions.  On the minus side, it plays up the “knight in shining armor” rich guy who swoops in to save the day for less-advantaged folks.  I do have to say, the stories  do pull at the heartstrings – I usually cry at the end of the show.

One of the reasons this show resonates for me is that I grew up upper middle class, married into upper class, and my wife and I have dedicated our lives to helping people in ways both big and small.  Like the bosses in Undercover Boss, we have swooped into people’s lives and helped them with financial challenges, and more often than not, it makes a real difference in their lives.

A few times, particularly when goals are vague, we have ended up enabling people and the relationship falls apart.  Through experience, we have learned what sorts of things really do help, and what does not.  The bosses on Undercover Boss sometimes really do hit the nail on the head, offering things that I believe will really make a difference in their employee’s lives.  Sometimes they miss the boat, throwing money at something because they can’t think of anything better to do.  They often are most paternalistic with the “problem” employees.

Two particular story lines have stuck with me.  The 7-11 CEO when to a particular store that did an extraordinary amount of business and he wanted to know why.  What he found was that there was one well-liked employee.  He commented that people weren’t coming to 7-11 for the great coffee; they were coming to see her.

The Hooters CEO had a “problem” manager who had his female waitstaff “compete” by eating a plateful of food with their hands behind their backs and faces in the plates.  Whoever won got to leave their shift early. The CEO’s reaction was that he was “aggravated” with the manager and gave the manager a second chance.  Aggravated?  How about appalled?  That’s how I felt.  That manager should have been fired on the spot.

Undercover Boss is a feel-good show that gives us actual, but limited, glimpses of the lives of low-wage workers.

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