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Why "Undercover Boss" gets leadership all wrong

Jon Younger
Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, where he leads the Strategic HR practice area. He is also a Director of the RBL Institute, and he blogs at the Huffington Post.

CBS' new reality TV show, "Undercover Boss," may be good entertainment, but it absolutely sends the wrong message to bosses and employees. Watch it and snicker, throw popcorn at will, and always remember - it may be called reality TV, but it's not a reality you want to emulate.

The premise of the show is this: It's tough to be the boss, and the toughest part is knowing what is really happening on the front line. In a recent press conference, President Obama said as much, lamenting the "bubble" that separates him from regular people. "The truth is, this job is a little confining," he said. "I can't just go to the barbershop or sit in a diner. I can't always visit people directly."

A similar bubble envelops business leaders. As bosses progress up the ranks, it is harder and harder to have reliable information about the real problems in their organizations. And in this era of increased liability, with big penalties at stake, there isn't a CEO in America who doesn't wonder whether he or she is at risk.

This is, of course, the sub-text that gives "Undercover Boss" its dramatic flair. The show, first introduced in Australia and the UK, follows high-level chief executives as they slip anonymously into the rank and file to experience the inner workings of their company. Like King Arthur traveling as Sir Boss incognito around merry old England, these executives are in regular-guy drag to find out "what do the simple folks do."

"Undercover Boss" solves the bubble challenge. The CEOs on the show come away from the experience with a better understanding of what is going on in the day-to-day operation of their organization. In yesterday's premiere, for example, Larry O'Donnell, president of Waste Management, discovered how his senior leadership team's approach to productivity hurt morale and frustrated employees on the front line. These were good insights and correcting the problem will undoubtedly help his company's financial performance.

But at what price? While popping the lonely-at-the-top bubble, "Undercover Boss" creates a much bigger one: creating a deeply suspicious work environment in which business leaders risk the confidence of employees in their leaders and colleagues. One of the most important jobs of the boss is to create a positive work ethic and a supportive work environment. The undercover boss does the reverse, establishing a culture you and I certainly wouldn't want to work in.

The short term impact: good TV. Longer term: a big hit to teamwork, productivity and performance and, probably, the bottom line. Would you want to work in a place where you didn't know whether your mate was a co-worker or a corporate spy? Had the boss simply visited with teams, or worked night shifts, or utilized an employee survey, he or she would have learned most of the same information without destroying trust.

A boss who misrepresents him or herself invites employees to misrepresent themselves, or perhaps misrepresent the company or its products and services to customers. Sneaky leadership authorizes sneaky behavior from others. What's next? How long before unethical conduct is acceptable in other areas, such as sales overcharging customers just a little, or accounting cooking the books just a tad to see if anyone is paying attention? Two hour lunches - why not? The most likely consequence of managerial deceit is, well, a culture of deceit.

Over the past several decades, we've learned what contributes to strong organizational performance: clear goals, a commitment to ethics, attention to customers, good communication, etc. These are workplace qualities that are difficult to preserve but quickly destroyed. We've seen it time and again, in companies like Tyco, Enron and Parmalat, where managers forgot the fundamentals or chose to ignore them.

Business leaders deserve a fair day's work from employees. They have a right to expect that employees will work hard, serve customers respectfully, be accurate and efficient in discharging their responsibilities, help out when necessary, and treat colleagues with dignity and respect.
In return for a fair day's work, business leaders owe employees a fair day's pay. But they also owe their employees common sense respect and trust. The "I-Spy" game played in "Undercover Boss" violates both. Ask yourself, would you want your son or daughter working in an organization run by a boss who fashions himself the Frank Serpico of business?

These are difficult times in business. Customers still aren't spending much. Unemployment levels are daunting. Commodity and technology prices continue to rise, making it that much more difficult for business leaders to make ends meet without continuing to cut costs and requiring them to find every way possible to be reduce waste and inefficiency. But playing "Undercover Boss" is not an alternative to good management principles and behavior. It may be entertaining, but as the expression goes, don't try this at home.

By Jon Younger

 |  February 8, 2010; 6:31 AM ET |  Category:  Pop Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Good points. There's another one that I mentioned in my post. This is rigged in the boss's favor. He or she knows what the game is. Employees don't. Of course, the presence of cameras following the "new guy" with the camo stubble can be hard to miss.

My post, "Undercover Boss: A Repellant Piece of Trash" is at

Posted by: wallybock | February 8, 2010 4:58 PM

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