Monday, October 17, 2011

TV Series - "Undercover Boss" & Lessons in Kindness

What happens when the boss of a multi-million dollar company trades his business suit and privileged lifestyle for a week as an entry level employee (i.e. at the bottom of rank and file) in his own company?

Such is the premise in the reality series, “Undercover Boss”. I've had this title for a while now, but I never got to see it because the title’s a little misleading. I thought it was about some mafia style action-drama series. How wrong can I be? The series started in the U.K. and has since generated local reincarnations in Australia, Norway, Germany, and, of course, the U.S. Currently, there are local versions in various levels of production in countries like Denmark, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and even Israel.

What I find interesting is how the production is able to convince these powerful and successful tycoons to even consider working menial jobs just to “stoop down” and experience what it's like to be at the bottom of the “food chain”, so to speak. But reasons have been varied. One boss wanted some insight on how efficiency can be improved for his business which, in the long run, would benefit productivity. Another C.E.O. aspired for ideas on how to bolster his customer base!

In every episode, an executive or business owner will go undercover as a new employee in his own company while cameras follow him around; supposedly a documentary is being made about entry level positions. He’s given a week to fulfill his task, which changes locations (branches, cities) daily. At the end of his week, the “boss” will re-convene the people he met along the way. Consequences are then promulgated, with a sort of comeuppance!

The companies are nothing to scoff at. The first company is called “Waste Management” – a $13 billion company that employs – hold your breath – 45,000 people! Then there’s the president of “Hooters” - an international restaurant chain associated with busty waitresses, beers and chicken wings. They even bill themselves as "delightfully tacky yet unrefined”. They’ve been unapologetic with their perceived notoriety so far, but it hasn’t been all sleaze. The restaurant’s waiting staff is primarily young, attractive waitresses whose revealing outfits and sex appeal are played up as its primary image. “Hooters” after all is slang for female breasts. And if you have doubts that sex indeed sells, this chain earns $1 billion a year from 460 restaurants in 27 countries, the Philippines included!

But what happens when the “boss” gets unwittingly “fired” by one of his employees? Would the latter get the axe?

In “Waste Management”, Larry O’Donnell (photos above), President and COO of North America’s biggest earning waste management company, trades his executive office for a hard hat and a bagged lunch. He checks in at motels for a week, then reports for work, posing as a new recruit – as a construction worker named Randy Lawrence! His first job was at a recycling facility, picking up and segregating trash. His “senior” for the day was an old woman who’s disappointed with Randy’s speed of separating recyclables from the rest of the trash. Day 2 occurred at a landfill in Florida. His job was to pick litter from the side of an impossibly windy hill. When he asked his geriatric “boss” – a black guy who undergoes 3 nights of dialysis a week – questions on “techniques” of picking litter, he gets reprimanded: “It isn’t rocket science!” In fact, he was signed out as someone “who just doesn’t have it”. Larry, much later, remarked: “He’s the only person to ever fire me in my life!

On Day 3, the undercover boss flies to Houston, Texas to join a carnival ground. His job – clean toilets, especially those that “don’t flush!” He meets Fred who’s been with the company for 10 years. Larry, posing as Randy – then gets ushered into a toilet that’s clogged by a diaper! But the more urgent matter is the fact that Randy has to finish 15 “cans” an hour! What’s a guy to do? What was Fred's impression on the new guy? Fred remarked on cam (about Larry): “I see potential in him. He has a future in this business.” And when you’re unknowingly talking about the “big man” who owns the conglomerate, would there be sweet repercussions?

On Larry’s last day, he flies to Rochester, New York at the “Trash Hauling Company” where he meets “garbage lady” Janice. She drives a truck around town and hauls off trash all day, stopping by from one house to another. He finds out along the way that Janice is severely under pressure to finish 300 houses a day so much so that she carries a tin can with her – she pees in the can! - as stopping by a toilet slashes too much from her working time! Larry is appalled!


The most interesting moment unravels when these subordinates are finally flown to the Big Boss’ office in Florida to reunite with Randy aka Larry, now garbed in flashy apparel. How do these employees react? What are the repercussions? Are changes forthcoming? I fidget with anticipation just waiting for these reunions.

One thing’s sure. The consequences become little tales of morality. When you do good to others, there could be a satisfactory reparation. Otherwise, consequences may get unpalatable! So what happened to the guy who fired his own boss? Aside from being speechless, he could only say with an uneasy smile: “He sure cleans up well!” And you have to see the episode to find out what becomes of the old guy!

"He just doesn't have it", remarked the old guy about his boss (left). Then he fires him.

Hooters” boss Scott Archer (photos above) takes the road in the second episode. In Day 1, Scott meets a tough branch manager (ex-marine officer) who finds him too slow when he’s tasked to handle 20 tons of restaurant trash. Scott even breaks a glass. He eventually gets canned. Day 2 finds Scott alongside promo girls Amanda and Brittney who navigate the streets peddling promo coupons and free chicken wings. In the course of this assignment, he learns what a number of people think about “Hooters”. A man didn't mince words: “It exploits women. It’s hard to justify taking our children to these joints.” The stigma is further upheld by another woman: “It degrades women… those uniforms! You have to cover up a little bit more!

Day 3 has Scott flying to Arlington, Texas where a restaurant manager is found talking down his waitresses. “Do they look like Hollywood starlets?” he asked Scott who’s posing as assistant manager for the day. These girls are tasked to look like starlets. The manager suggested to one of the girls, “Get another tattoo by tomorrow.” Then something bothersome occurred later in the day: The waitresses were made to participate in a “Reindeer Game” – a beans-eating contest. In this contest, a plate of beans is given to each of the girls. Whoever finishes the beans first gets the day off. No spoons, no use of hand! While the ladies were lapping up their beans - like reindeers would, the manager would ecstatically howl: “hooh…doggy!” while the women's faces are covered with bean sauce. If that isn't demeaning and inappropriate, I don’t know what is!

What really is life on the job? How does the ordinary employee work? Are the big bosses really so out of touch? There’s never been quite like “Undercover Boss” anywhere on television. Sometimes these episodes feel like modern fairy tales where the good guys get rewarded, and the not-so-good get reprimanded. More than anything, it’s an episodic eye-opener that has its viewers laugh, cry, and hold their breaths in anticipation. And the stories are even real!

The succeeding episodes rope in the owners of Seven-Eleven (7-11) Convenience Stores, burger joint “White Castle”, etc. It completed 9 episodes. Season 2 has 22 episodes (with the bosses from “Subway”, “Nascar”, “Chicago Cubs”, “MGM Grand”, etc.) It’s currently in production for season 3. It’s been a compelling watch so far!

Dave Rife, one of the owners of White Castle gets an instruction from his day boss.

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