Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Sunday, April 04, 2010


-- television -- undercover agents

So I've been watching CBS' new show Undercover Boss. And on the one hand, it's wonderfully inspirational, and it's enjoyable to see bosses of big companies find out what it's like for the little guy, the people on the bottom, the people who make their business run. But at the same time, there's been an aspect of it that just nagged at me, but I wasn't able to figure out what it was until today, watching the end of the Roto-Rooter segment. And the answer is this: there are usually real issues to be addressed, but the solutions all turn out to be very particular. Very specific.

To be fair, sometimes, that's exactly what's needed. For example, in one case, a person was doing the job of four people, because the manager directly above her was trying to meet certain targets for personnel expenses -- erroneously, it seemed -- and wasn't hiring replacements for people as they left. The solution there, as was perfectly reasonable, was to hire a couple of people, and to give that person a major raise. In another case, I'm pretty sure that a manager at Hooters had his job saved purely by the fact that he was being filmed; he was having his female employees doing some terribly, horribly degrading things -- not quite sexual harrassment, but still terribly humiliating. Quite honestly, I would think that without the filming, a corporation would lay itself open to all sorts of lawsuits if they didn't fire the guy ... if he hadn't been filmed. In another case, Waste Management realized that it needed to rework its trucks and/or its break policy because they didn't allow female workers to take bathroom breaks during an eight hour shift on the trucks. And so on and so on, and those are all perfectly reasonable.

What sometimes bugs me is that some of the solutions on Undercover Boss are directed specifically at individuals. And it's not that I begrudge them their good luck; it's that the same opportunities are almost certainly not going to be available to other employees whom the president/CEO/COO has not met. White Castle made arrangements for one guy to go to culinary school. Two different companies made arrangements for specific employees to undergo wellness training of various sorts -- Roto-Rooter apparently arranged for one employee to get a home gym, as well as working with a nutritionist and an account at a health foods store. They also arranged for another employee to get a minibus for his amateur kids basketball team -- though, to be fair, that was almost certainly done as a donation to an organization that could use the bus for other activities. Others have gotten various types of housing arrangements handled, because for various reasons, they weren't making enough money to stave off mortgage default. (That usually, and deservedly, gets corrected as well. It's rather surprising the sheer number of people at these companies who are being outrageously underpaid, in ways that the leaders seemingly don't know about.)

To be sure, I'm not at all sure how long the "undercover boss" gimmick is going to be sustainable. You can only have just so many people appearing with unexpected video cameras just so often without people eventually figuring out what it's likely to be. (Myself, if that happened, I'd go checking the company website for the name of the chief officers -- CBS usually makes sure that photos are taken down before filming starts, so I wouldn't expect to find pictures -- and then I'd do an image search to see if I could find photos. And then I might very well warn people I knew in other locations, if I knew any of them.) But apart from the sustainability, what I wonder is how long it will be before the show winds up getting one of its undercovered companies sued by employees who figure that some of the individual solutions they see should be offered to the entire company. After all, it's going to be hard for a company to justify just giving person A a certain amount of money to cover their mortgage, just because the founder met them and knows how hard they work. Or to justify giving employee B a scholarship, just because the CEO met them and realizes what a kickass employee they'd be with a little more of a specific type of education.Or why worker C, who met the COO, gets a tailored wellness program and a home gym and worker D, who's just as unhealthy, doesn't. Some of the things they're giving out to individuals really ought to be universal benefits available to everyone in the company.

And perhaps, just perhaps, they need to think harder about some of the solutions to the other employee problems that they're trying to solve. Because it can't be that long before one of those solutions causes an even bigger problem that it's going to take a lot more work to solve.

Posted by iain at 11:36 PM in category television