Business Lessons from “Undercover Boss”

One of the newer shows that has captured my attention this past year is “Undercover Boss”, which airs on CBS Sunday nights at 9 Eastern.  The premise is simple: CEO’s and company Presidents go undercover as potential employees at their own companies.  They work in starter jobs in various locations and departments in order to get a pulse on what conditions are really like, and what the employees really think of their jobs.

Although I always thought the idea was intriguing, I was surprised to find the show to be both sincere and captivating.  My sole complaint is that it’s a little formulaic, but the stories and the payoff are so emotional that I can overlook that part. 

At the end of each episode, the CEO calls in a few of the employees that they worked alongside and has a big “reveal” (“I’m actually in charge of the whole company”), which is typically accompanied by a reward for each employee.  As an example, last night’s episode featured the CEO of UniFirst, who gave one employee a $5000 bonus and offered to pay her rent and utilities for one year.  Amazing stuff, and I’m pretty certain that he has a supremely loyal worker now.

On a related note, I’m in the middle of reading a book called “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely.  In one chapter, Ariely discusses the difference between social and market norms, and how they dictate behavior.  He talks about how market norms shouldn’t really enter social situations (e.g. “I will pay you $300 for this Thanksgiving dinner, mom.”).  Conversely, he talks about how businesses that market their social side have to be consistent in this, rather than bringing in market issues.  If your bank is all about being warm and fuzzy, providing cookies and coffee, and remembering your name, they can also drop the ball if they suddenly hit you with a weird unknown fee and won’t resolve it.  This causes cognitive dissonance, in my opinion. 

With that in mind, I think there’s a big lesson to be found in “Undercover Boss”, namely, that companies that demonstrate their authentic care for their workers have an opportunity to use social norms and develop long-term relationships, similar to real family members.  Based on what I’ve seen and read, Tony Hsieh at Zappos strikes me as someone that has done a very effective job of creating a fun (family) atmosphere. 

Obviously, the companies profiled on this particular show are probably willing to hold themselves to a different standard, merely by putting themselves through the experiment in the first place. 

“Undercover Boss” is one of the few “reality” shows that gives me hope every time I watch it. 

If you’re interested in watching some recent full episodes of this program, you can find them here on CBS’ website:

  • Hi Jason,

    Thanks for your perspective. Since I most often can be seen wearing my cynical hat, I have the exact opposite opinion (though I prefer yours).

    Not to take away from your fondness of the show and the CEOs who show their “every guy” side and have done a few cool things for a few people, but my experience as a communicator in a big organization has taught me that most spontaneity is closely scripted.

    I find it contrived, from choosing the very likable employee mentors who have stories of woe, to inserting a person that “recognizes” the CEO for his true identity. While there is some niceness in the end of each episode (which is always good) it doesn’t really serve the greater good. I mean, in an enormous organization, how many stories of woe must there be – particularly these days?

    It would be really interesting to follow up after the fact to see if any of the ground-level wrongs discovered by the CEO were righted and kept that way.

    (stepping from soapbox)


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