When Undercover Boss (UB) debuted in 2010, it was considered a clever idea. Take the head of company, put him/her in a disguise, and unleash the person on unsuspecting employees in order to discover how the day-to-day business operates. The hope was that by being in the trenches, the CEO would learn how to optimize the business as well as gain a new appreciation for the hard work of the rank-and-file.
The reality of this experiment, however, had little to do with gaining the knowledge for strategizing broad changes. Instead a sort of spot bonus approach favored a few individuals the CEO interacted with during the week. Time and time again, rather than use the opportunity to make sweeping changes to policy, systems, or programs, only a handful of employees were benefitted while no real transformative efforts to the organization took place.
Apparently audiences liked this formula opting for the happy employee ending versus seeing a leader implement corrections that could make a difference to all employees.
After several seasons and segments, it is clear that a few patterns have emerged – patterns that could yield healthy outcomes, if and when, your business gets a ‘surprise’ visit from the top.
1. A camera crew is your first clue something is up
Unless you work at a news station or other media outlet where roving cameras are common, it is reasonable to be suspicious of a camera crew fronted by a person that seems just a bit out of place posing as either a entrepreneur, reality show producer, or other fake personas invented as part of the ruse. Take note and adjust accordingly.
2. Know what your CEO looks like
Surprisingly, the majority of employees profiled on the show have never seen the CEO either on the company website or in a framed picture. If the disguise is good enough, one could argue people were ‘fooled’ but you realize the truth in the reveal at the end. That truth is evident on the employees blank faces when the CEO comes in. They react like it’s another employee and seem surprised when the person reveals his/her true identify. This seems very hard to believe with the internet so for all roles knowing what the head of the company you work for looks like is a basic piece of research to complete.
3. Be the model employee
If confronted with an individual supposedly filming you and your workplace for a special project, it pays to be passionate and enthusiastic. It’s strange how many people are trusting and willing to talk about what they like and don’t like about work, their family problems, etc with a complete stranger who is only with them for one day. If you truly don’t know who the person is you are speaking with, assume it’s a corporate spy and espouse the company values, mission statements, and mantras in order to be remembered as a team player.
4. Rehearse your sob story
The frosting on the cake with all UB episodes is the truly sad stories that employees give. They either need health care for a sick child, they don’t make enough to pay the rent, or they have to go through several bus routes to get to work because they don’t have a car. Whatever your worst-case scenario is be ready to reveal it and earn sympathy points. You might get rewarded with a cash lump sum, plastic surgery, a vacation, or a promotion.
It seems like more and more mainstream companies are opting to take the UB challenge. The law of diminishing returns, however, would say that the premise is getting easier to spot and perhaps people are already playing the game. At six seasons in, people have to be aware of the signs they are being evaluated when the moment arises. The challenge is to stay in the right character. In fact, it would be a breath of fresh air if an employee knew what was happening and suggested truly strategic and thoughtful ways to improve the company. If that day ever comes, the show will have promise, but until then, practice and be ready to earn a personal Oscar to reap the rewards of a visit from the head honcho.