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Lessons Learned from Undercover Boss

Posted by Elaine Varelas  February 7, 2011 08:00 AM

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If you’re a reality TV junkie, you may have seen a show called, Undercover Boss. It is a program where CEOs, owners, or other high-level executives go “undercover” (donning disguises, aliases, and bogus biographies) as entry-level employees at their own organizations. They work alongside multiple employees to see what it is “really” like to work at the company--and for themselves. Along the way, they get into amusing predicaments, unearth some problems within the organization, and get to know some of their employees. Towards the end of each show, the executive’s true identity is revealed, dedicated employees are rewarded, and the CEO works to address the issues and breakdowns within the organization that the other employees helped bring to light.

If you can overlook the happy-ending-in-an-hour format and the requisite reality television manufactured tension and tear-jerker moments, Undercover Boss offers some valuable human resources gems. Here are some lessons HR managers and leadership teams can learn from the show:

Being an effective CEO takes courage--The CEOs on this show are getting some great publicity for their organizations, but they are also exposing themselves and all of their management policies (some of which are inevitably lacking) on television. Yet, CEOs should be brave. Heading up a company is a challenging job that requires risk-taking and unconventional ideas.

Saying “thank you” matters--In every episode, the executive calls special employees to his or her office for a debriefing. At that time, the CEO makes sure to thank employees for their hard work and dedication to the company. This is a highly anticipated part of the show, partly because viewers all over the country are waiting to live vicariously through these employees as the CEO says, “thanks.”

Rewards should be personal--This is also the time when employees are recognized for their work. The CEO always tailors the reward to the individual. The CEO doles out perks based on what employees may need or want to achieve in their careers or personal lives. These rewards may be training and development, help with education costs, financial rewards, a new assignment or promotion, solutions for work/family balance, or vacations.

Small changes can make a big difference--Sometimes the management changes that boost morale and productivity the most on the show aren’t expensive or expansive. In one episode featuring ABM industries, a commercial building maintenance company, one of the housekeepers explained to the CEO that it was difficult to do her job in the company’s uniform, a dress. During the show, her wish to work in a shirt and pants created a new policy for all female employees. She was thrilled by this small--but not insignificant--change.

Every company has room for improvement--During the show, you can see how some programs, products, or policies aren’t working. It is okay to acknowledge that there are problems within an organization. It’s important to address issues and not just ignore them.

Sometimes there’s a breakdown in the management process--Most CEOs on the show are surprised to discover at least one issue on their undercover journey. Leadership teams put policies in place, but they don’t always trickle down to every corner of the organization. Sometimes there is a leak along the management pipes. HR managers need to create opportunities for gathering this important information without putting the CEO in a wig and glasses. There are expensive and in-depth methods for giving employees a voice, such as engagement surveys. There are also less pricey options HR managers can initiate.

If an engagement survey isn’t financially feasible for your company right now, how can you get feedback from employees--either formally or informally--and see where the management process may be breaking down?

• Let managers know it is their job to check in with employees, ask for feedback, and consider employee requests (not just give an automatic “no”). Managers should also have the power to address these problems.
• Let employees know that they are responsible for speaking up. They can’t complain about a problem unless they are working with management to fix it. Of course, employees need to feel safe from punishment when sharing grievances.
• Have a suggestions box--Depending on the size of the company, suggestions could be collected in an actual box, a virtual discussion board, a dedicated email address, or at department staff meetings. I know there are issues, but the input value outweighs the negatives.
• Encourage leadership to take a trip into the culture--The leadership team should be leaving their corner offices to travel to where employees go: the cafeteria, gym, and break room. Informal conversations are a great way to gather valuable information.

Of course, reality TV shows are far from reality. It wouldn’t be possible to unearth and fix every management problem and reward exceptional employees in an hour or even a week. Yet, we can gain some insight by watching someone else’s CEO squirm on network television. From their trials and successes, HR managers can implement strategies to foster a more effective and cohesive organization.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.