Sunday, February 07, 2010

Guilty pleasure: Undercover Boss

OK, OK, I'll admit it... I, uh, watched Undercover Boss tonight.

There's a reason why I don't discuss too many TV shows on this blog. That's because I almost never turn on the TV. Yes, I'm content to watch TV passively if someone else has turned the thing on, usually to Discovery Channel -- that's why I'm aware of shows like Cash Cab, Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters and Destroyed in Seconds (known in our household as "Crap Go Boom") -- but most of the time, I honestly forget that we have a television. My idiot box of choice is, well, the thing you're probably using to read this.

I'm not a fan of most "reality" TV series. I don't follow any of the competition series such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, and there are a number of others whose very conceits get me angry, because they're clearly exploitative and ruin real people's lives for the sake of ratings. But there are a few reality series I do enjoy, primarily because I think they serve a function of sorts or go a step beyond mere entertainment. Mythbusters falls into this category because it uses scientific principles to destroy the credibility of fake urban legends (and yes, watching them destroy stuff FOR SCIENCE! is fun). Dirty Jobs is both entertaining and respectful of the men and women whose difficult and unpleasant jobs are highlighted on the show. Likewise, I have nothing but praise for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition because the focus is on finding and helping people who are clearly in need; it tends to bring out the best of human nature. But most other reality shows I take pains to avoid.

We have been known to watch the Super Bowl with friends, mostly for the ads. This year we wandered over to visit Fen and Mitch, and after the game ended we stayed to check out Undercover Boss. And, well, I actually liked it.

Yes, I know it's at least partially scripted, and that the raw footage was heavily edited to tell a particular story. I'm pretty sure that CBS or Waste Management did a business-wide search for some of the hardest-working unsung heroes of the company, and that they were cherry-picked to work with undercover COO Larry O'Donnell. Even so, I thought it was worth watching, because it illustrates what I perceive to be a very common problem in large American businesses: there are too many layers of insulation between the people who make the company-wide business decisions and the people who have to implement those decisions on the front lines. Top bosses don't want their corporate culture to be toxic, but they often have no idea what's going on among the rank-and-file employees. And some don't really want to know because they're uncomfortable with seeing the effects of their choices, or with the idea of making sweeping changes.

Years ago, when I worked at WordPerfect, the original company bosses had a great idea. They created a suggestion box program for the entire company to use. Anyone who had access to a computer at work -- and at WordPerfect, that was close to 100% of the company -- could send a note of praise, a complaint or an idea via the suggestion box and know that the top guys would read it. They didn't implement everything they read, but they were able to tell whether things were working well or bombing because they got their information directly from the people who were "down in the trenches" actually taking phone calls and dealing with customers. I don't know why more tech companies haven't implemented such an option for their own employees; why should they hire outside consultants to tell them what's wrong with their business model, when their own employees would happily inform them of all the company problem spots for free?

One thing I've noticed over time at a number of different jobs is the correlation between the quality of the job environment, and the visibility and accessibility of the top boss. With one glaring exception, when I had jobs at small businesses and worked right alongside the company executives, those were good places to work. Ditto the big businesses where the employees had a chance to meet with the top executives or at least recognize them on sight. But the big companies with faceless, nameless bosses who lived and did business in a faraway city were, at best, mediocre places to work; at worst they were the kinds of places where you got through the day by fantasizing about slitting your wrists. I could predict that Waste Management would have the kinds of problems pointed out in the show from the moment I realized its COO could successfully go undercover without being recognized by any of his front-line employees. Imagine Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer trying to do that. ("Not without plastic surgery," was the comment this evening.)

It's possible for big businesses to keep in touch with their employees. It's just difficult, and a lot of executives would find it a bitter pill to swallow if they had to face some of the things their employees go through. I'd hope that shows like Undercover Boss would encourage CEOs and other executive officers of large companies to connect with their employees, and maybe discover some useful information about how to make their businesses better places to work.

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