Undercover Boss


“If you’re the boss,
just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean
your employees don’t have needs”.
James Levine

I have found myself watching the show Undercover Boss on Sunday evenings.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it involves CEOs of well known organizations going “undercover” and working alongside the rank and file within their companies.  This makes for some interesting viewing as the CEO, in disguise and using an assumed name, gains insight into how employees feel about their jobs, the organization and their lives.   Each CEO goes undercover for a work week and spends each day in a different location with a different employee.

What stands out to me is the depth to which employees are willing to share with a complete stranger regarding their viewpoints and misgivings about their positions and their employer as well as the challenges they face in their personal lives.  While I cannot judge whether this show is considered “good” TV, it certainly seems enlightening for the leaders of the various organizations that appear.  At the end of the show the CEO goes on to meet with each of the employees they worked with and often responds to some of the professional and personal needs they shared while they worked together. 

You Can’t Fix What You Didn’t Know was Broken

I have always encouraged folks to advocate for themselves.  If they have something on their mind they should appropriately express themselves.  However, often employees don’t have the level of comfort with management to share their concerns or ideas.  My experience has been that to hear what is on people’s minds you have to ask them.  That requires getting out among them and creating an environment where honest dialogue will bring out the good and the bad.  

Often the corner office is a daunting place for employees to visit and a sanctuary for the manager that resides there.  Employees do not relish being called to come and see the boss and often the boss doesn’t want to leave the comfortable confines of their office or step from behind the protective barrier of their desk.  This dynamic often prevents a great many issues from being addressed simply because no one was comfortable simply asking “How’s it going”.  That takes us back to the Undercover Boss scenario.  First and foremost it’s just entertainment but it does illustrate a point; if employees aren’t talking to you chances are they’re talking to somebody.

Brand Management of the Other Kind

Maybe the stranger they talk to isn’t their CEO in disguise but their neighbor, son-in-law or mailman.  Then that individual passes what they heard along to someone else and so on.  We all know how the story changes as it makes its way around the room.  Now the information is out in the community influencing how folks perceive the company and its work environment.  They may hear it’s a bad place to work or that quality is poor or the pay is too low.  The information may not even be accurate but the affect on the opinions of potential customers and/or employees when the time comes to make a sale or fill a position could be limiting to a company’s success in meeting sales goals and hiring good candidates.  And the company’s reputation could suffer because of it. 

It’s Much Harder to Change an Opinion than to Create One

The leaders appearing on Undercover Boss seem genuinely changed by their interactions with employees they would not have come into contact with had they not gone undercover.  They take advantage of opportunities to make changes that alter perceptions, attitudes, their work environment and people’s lives.  In addition, in giving, they get back even more.  All because they took the time to talk and listen with the barrier of “boss” removed from the equation.

What if…once a week you took a walk through the office, plant, construction site and chatted with folks.  What if you talked with the new guy or learned employees names and a bit about their lives?  What if that led to learning what works and what doesn’t out on the shop floor?  What if you squelched a rumor or people got the idea you were interested in what’s going on in their lives?  What if your example caused other managers to do the same?  What if the word got out that your company isn’t a bad place to work and that management listens?  What if…?

What’s the moral of this story?  There’s no need to go undercover, just go…

Here to serve,

John Duba

Next month:  Internal Customer Service

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