Undercover Leaders

The television show Undercover Boss features a leader working undercover in his or her own company to find out how the organization really works.The show is a good example of management by walking around (MBWA). Here, we consider the ethical leadership lessons it might offer.

Executives from DirecTV, , 7-Eleven, NASCAR, Chiquita, and Choice Hotels have been featured on the show. Typically, the executive works undercover for a week. Then the employees with whom and under whom the leader has worked are summoned to company headquarters and rewarded, or punished, for their actions.

In one episode, Waste Management’s president Larry O’Donnell, sporting gray stubble and work clothes, works the back of a trash truck. Later, he sorts recyclables from a fast-moving conveyer belt. Under the barking orders of a supervisor, he even cleans a long line of portable toilets.

Some criticize the show for its faux realism. The CEOs know they are on camera, so every word and facial expression is for the cameras. Many employees know they are on camera too. One critic commented, “Because the series’ very existence requires cooperation from the executives that it purports to make suffer for their sins, it has to raise them higher, in the end, than it found them at the start.”

Realistic or not, the series continues to be popular. After all, haven’t you sometimes wondered what it would be like to do someone else’s job?

The idea has moved beyond television too. Recently, the Australian government created a program that places CEOs undercover in their own workplaces. One CEO, Phil Smith of clothing retailer Fletcher Jones, said in tears of the experience, “I learnt a lot from this that I wouldn’t have found out any other way.”

Photo by flippunkrocker