"Undercover Boss" Is Reality Uncovered

Have you ever been inside a local branch of a typical big company when a senior corporate executive comes to visit? If not, imagine what it would take to host a five-star dinner party inside your home, only with a raised sense of nervousness and fear.

Everything has to go according to the Briefing Book, everyplace has to be clean, everyone has to be on their “best behavior” in their best clothes and if anyone “says the wrong thing,” they could be out of a job. Typically, the executive sees an experience that is very different from the actual day-to-day.

Last night, after the Super Bowl, CBS debuted a new “reality show” called “Undercover Boss.” In it, corporate executives pose as entry level workers in their own companies. As this review in Business Week points out, the show is built on deception and falsehood, as the executives gain the trust of lower level workers (and have to explain the cameras). But, the show’s premise is firmly grounded in truth. After watching the show (which I put in the “pretty good TV” category), there’s a PR lesson to be learned – as corporations become larger, executives are perceived (often rightly so) as being too far removed from the actual groundwork of the company. That can create communications and morale issues as well as bad policy. It shouldn’t take a reality show, but executives need to step off their pedestals and experience their “front lines” as often as possible.

One experience I saw years ago will always stay with me. The CEO of a huge retail company, flown in on the corporate jet for a grand opening event inside one of his company’s local stores, wanted some mints before the event began. So he went to the front of the store, selected his favorite mints, took the package to the cash register, pulled out a dollar and bought the mints, while being treated like any other customer. That “executive as human” moment proved indelible in my mind because it was so unusual. It shouldn’t be.