Undercover Boss: Reality TV or Good PR?

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Directly following the Super Bowl, CBS (Stock Quote: VIA) premiered an interesting new program that might interest MainStreet readers. Undercover Boss follows captains of industry as they try out lower level jobs in the companies they run. It’s now the top rated network show of the season. But are the discoveries the bosses make genuine and are the changes they promise really in the works? We spoke to one of the companies that participated and it turns out that while in some cases real change may have occurred, in others, facts were obfuscated or left on the cutting room floor, apparently for the sake of making better TV.

MainStreet took a closer look at the first episode and here are our findings.

The premiere episode of Undercover Boss featured President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management Larry O’Donnell. The $13 billion company has 75,000 employees, and does just what you’d imagine. According to its Web site, WM serves “20 million municipal, commercial, industrial, and residential customers through a network of 367 collection operations, 355 transfer stations, 273 active landfill disposal sites, 16 waste-to-energy plants, 134 recycling plants, and 111 beneficial-use landfill gas projects.”

On the show, Larry stripped off his suit, donned work clothes and journeyed to a number of WM locations where he did a number of jobs that, frankly, most of us probably would do everything in our power to avoid. He cleaned out toilets, cleared garbage off of landfills, sorted trash and rode around on a garbage truck. At every stop he was paired with an employee who evaluated his work and provided him with the “inside scoop” on the operations of the company (as far as the employees knew, he was just a regular guy trying out an entry-level job for a TV show). In most cases, Larry wasn’t any good at these jobs, and in one case he was basically fired. It was, without a doubt, gratifying to watch a boss get taken down a notch, and that sense of comeuppance seems to drive the show.

First and foremost, it’s a feel-good show for the American working stiff.  What disgruntled, underpaid and underappreciated American worker wouldn’t enjoy seeing the boss get shamed on national television? Who among us hasn’t thought that there’s no way the boss could do what we do on a daily basis? Seeing that kind of bitterness validated on national TV is powerful stuff. In this episode, they have Larry actually cleaning up human excrement.

Second, and more importantly, the show is like a public relations valentine for the companies participating. In this episode, Larry is portrayed as a genuinely concerned boss who is shocked — just shocked — that some of his workers are less than thrilled with their jobs and/or compensation. He was committed to doing something to right these egregious — though by all accounts isolated — wrongs.

After a few e-mails back and forth I was able to connect with a WM public relations representative who was involved in the production. I asked for some clarification, and she was refreshingly frank. Usually when you ask pointed questions of a large company you get vague talking points. Not so here. These responses are generally quite clear, though they do expose some slight-of-hand on the part of the producers of the show, to put it mildly. Take a look.

MainStreet: In the show it was implied that Kevin, a manager, was responsible for a policy in which workers are docked two minutes for every minute late they are coming off of lunch. Did Kevin initiate that policy on his own, or was he instructed to do so? Is that policy in use in any other WM locations and if so is it being repealed across the board?

Waste Management: It turns out that some employees in Syracuse misunderstood how to read the Kronos (time clock) conversion from minutes to hundredths of an hour. When they saw that one minute was the same as 0.02 minutes (or two hundredths of a minute), they thought they were being docked two minutes for every one minute they were late. This was not the case and is certainly not our company policy. What we really had was a miscommunication, and through the show, Kevin – a WM Summit Award winner – was able to clear up the misunderstanding with the employees after the show. Larry and I did not realize the exactly what was going on until after the show was shot.

Our Take: The producers of Undercover Boss (at best) failed to do their homework and as a result did not recognize that one of the show’s central conflicts was based on a simple misunderstanding. This is frankly pretty unlikely, given that at the end of the program, Kevin was reprimanded by Larry and told to change the policy. If I were Kevin, I’d have spoken up and explained that the whole thing was a mistake, and maybe he did just that. Obviously, televising that moment would have undermined or complicated the premise of the show (boss goes undercover to find out what’s really going on, rights some wrongs, yadda yadda) and robbed the storyline of elevated tension and a gratifying reprimand. If I were Kevin, I’d ask for a giant raise in exchange for being made the fall guy on national television.

MainStreet: In Fairport, N.Y., Jaclyn was doing the jobs of three or four people and felt she was being underpaid. Her manager indicated that they were short-staffed. Larry appears to have freed up some money in the budget to hire more people and give Jaclyn a promotion and raise. I imagine that there are other WM locations that are similarly short-staffed and are employed by people as hard-working as Jaclyn who also face personal challenges. Will WM begin to take a closer look at its entire workforce with the goal of identifying more people like Jaclyn, who are hard workers, are being paid less than they “deserve” and/or have a demonstrated personal need? Please be specific about how you might pursue this particularly in terms of budgeting and how workers will be evaluated.

Waste Management: Our company is full of good people.  As a bit of clarification, on the show Jackie was actually filling her job and a position that was in the process of being backfilled. Both of those jobs have now been filled under existing budget. The scale house is very important to our company — it’s the face of the landfill to our customers. The jobs are often buys [sic] and involve multitasking.  Larry travels a lot across WM. We have lots of “Jackies.” These are people who have the potential to do something different from what they were doing because of a special talent or a skill. Before the show we identified and worked with such employees, and we will continue to do that after the show. What we did for Jackie on the show wasn’t new or different from what has been done elsewhere for other high potentials.  Jackie was promoted because of her skills and not her personal situation. We hope this show inspires all of [sic] managers to look for talent to mentor and reward where they find it.  We can always get better.

Our Take: Here’s another example of how reality show storylines can be misleading. The fact that Jackie was filling in, and not permanently doing the jobs of three or four people was never explained. The impression was that the office was short-staffed and had Larry not come by, it would have remained short-staffed. Furthermore, the show clearly left the impression that Jackie’s personal situation played a role in her eventual promotion (the big reveal at the end of the show was that she was going to be able to keep her house as a result of her promotion). Obviously, Waste Management isn’t going to go around promoting everyone who has a challenging personal life, but the show seemed to create the impression that they might, or in the very least that their executives are sensitive to these issues.

MainStreet: At the central landfill in Pompano Beach, Fla., Larry meets Walter who, despite being on dialysis for 20 years, is an incredibly diligent and productive worker. Larry is understandably impressed and inspired. Ultimately, Walter is provided with some amount of paid time off and will have the opportunity to conduct leadership seminars. Will WM seek to identify other employees who, like Walter, have worked through the pain of a debilitating illness and still get the job done? Will other employees with similar stories get PTO as well?

Waste Management: Today, any employee can get PTO to do volunteer work under our GreenWorks program.  But Walter was special, as you point out, because of his condition.  Because of privacy laws (like HIPPA), finding him work with others in the community proved impossible.  But we have a robust wellness program at WM that includes heath fairs and health education.  Among other things, it teaches people to know their “numbers” — like blood pressure and cholesterol.  Walter is a now part of this program as our first Health Mentor, and is telling the cautionary story of how his kidneys are damaged from high blood pressure.  He has already spoken to more than 500 employees and is helping them be healthier.  Currently we are recruiting more health mentors. The next one will be a woman who has just survived breast cancer.

Our Take: It appears that this is a genuine example of how the show may have led to a lasting change with the creation of this health mentorship program. Now let’s see to what extent this program is expanded and supported by corporate in the years to come.

MainStreet: Trash collector Janice voiced concern over the rigid productivity standards on her route and the fact that she’s often tailed by managers in white trucks. Larry gets to meet the people she serves every day and seems to find real value in her interaction with them. Will WM ease productivity requirements throughout the company in order to foster better, more connected relationships between workers and their customers? Will the white trucks continue to check up on WM employees or is that practice being abandoned overall?

Waste Management: Yes, some of the employees thought that Route Managers were spying on them in the white trucks. This observation process is certainly essential to the company’s safety and continued improvement in productivity. However, in some cases, it had become a negative experience for our drivers who sometimes feel that the Route Managers are just trying to catch them doing something wrong. This process affects a large number of the company’s employees as route managers and drivers make up the majority of our workforce. Therefore, we are developing special company-wide communications training for Route Managers so they can give constructive and positive feedback to our drivers, and learn to be effective coaches. As a part of this coaching, we hope to work together with drivers to find ways to improve efficiency — it’s not about driving faster, it’s about jointly finding things on the route that create inefficiencies (like containers being in locations where they are difficult to service). We always want our employees to smile, wave and engage with our customers.

Our Take: If this new communications training is effective then is seems that this might be another example of a lasting change that grew out of the TV show, though frankly it’s hard to believe that this is the first time Waste Management heard that their employees were unhappy with the white trucks. As far as easing the productivity requirements, it seems that this isn’t in the cards, which isn’t terribly surprising. This is a business after all and businesses need to be productive. The show, however, seems to ignore this reality, and again leaves the impression that WM will amend productivity requirements in order to foster better relationships with customers. And we’re not talking about waving and smiling here. At one point, Janice and Larry got out and spoke to one of the people on Janice’s route. They even hugged.

Now, given some of these plot lines, particularly the ones involving Kevin and Jaclyn, we thought it was only fair to give the production company an opportunity to respond. We reached out to Studio Lambert, the company that produces the show and they promptly referred us to a PR person from CBS. We explained to the CBS guy that we understand that all reality shows engage in a bit of casting — meaning that they don’t just happen upon the people who participate in them. Studio Lambert no doubt spent weeks researching Waste Management and worked hard to find employees like Jaclyn whose stories would work best on the show. I think that the American viewing audience is aware of this practice on some level, and even if they’re not, they’d probably be willing to accept that this is all part of the sausage making process that is TV production. But I explained that I thought that the incidents with Kevin and Jaclyn may have crossed a line in that they misrepresented the fundamental ‘reality’ of the situation at hand.

So here’s the statement I got from CBS in response to my questions:

“Undercover Boss reveals a slice of life at one company for a few days. The participating companies determine the course of action from there.  We stand by what was shown in the episode.”

Considerably less forthcoming than Waste Management, and really doesn’t say much of anything. The fact that they’re not denying that that the facts were twisted on purpose could lead one to reasonably speculate that they were well aware that this was being done, and, as they note in this statement, they “stand by” that practice.

That’s surprising given a recent story in the New York Post that points out, among other things, that unlike most reality shows, people who are featured in Undercover Boss aren’t paid.

“Unlike reality shows like Survivor and Biggest Loser, the people who appear on the show don't know they are going to be on a big-time network series — and signed away their rights after being told they were participating in a small documentary. ‘It is a formatted documentary,’ executive producer Stephen Lambert tells The Post — not a reality show, he insists.”

I understand why this show isn’t like Survivor and Biggest Loser, which are really more like game shows. But if Undercover Boss is supposed to be a documentary, then they should be documenting reality as opposed to a preordained storyline. Otherwise, they should be paying the people who participate... especially Kevin.

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