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Undercover Boss: Just How Badly is Your Company Screwing Itself

Undercover Boss is one of my favorite new shows. Why? Because we desperately need to encourage upper management to get in touch with what’s really going on inside their companies. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and it’s harming employees just as much as customers, if not more.

I was introduced to it on an episode of Oprah in which she highlighted the executives in the first two stings of the season. When I first heard the name of the show, I assumed it was about bosses going undercover to discover the negligence of their employees; instead it’s about discovering the negligence of themselves.

The series premiere featured two major corporations: Waste Management and 7-Eleven, both multi-billion dollar annual revenue companies. [Watch full episodes at CBS.com]

Posing as a regular dude, Larry O’Donnell, President and COO of Waste Management, worked alongside his lowest-level employees — sorting through waste, collecting garbage from a landfill, cleaning Porta-Potties — and was even fired for the first time in his life.

The moment that was the most poignant for me was when O’Donnell was on a garbage truck in Rochester, NY, with a female driver named Janice who visits more than 300 homes a day. At one point during their shift, Janice disappears for a bit while Larry was talking to the cameras. As they’re getting back into the truck, Larry notices that Janice is holding a tin can and offers to take it for her (she’s driving). She flinches and says, “No no no, this is my pee-can.” Larry first thinks, “Where I’m from we call it pee-kahn” — but then realizes what it is. Janice goes on to explain that while she enjoys working for the company, they aren’t very female friendly. Her manager hasn’t scheduled enough time for her to use the restroom along her route, and while the men just pull over to the side of the road to go, she can’t exactly do that. Instead she pees in a can that she keeps for the day and empties it out at the end of her shift.

Needless to say, as the President and COO of the company, Larry is devastated to hear this, but tries to keep his cool so not to blow his cover. In his interview with Oprah, he explains how eye-opening it was to realize how little of the process he truly understood. Here he is, running this company, and he doesn’t even think about the fact that someone, somewhere, is driving this truck, and there isn’t any policy in place to allow time for bathroom breaks.

Of course he says on national television that changes are being made, as anyone would. But it got me wondering about the companies I work with, and the antiquated and often inhumane processes that not only harm customers, but more often the employees who are trying to serve them.

All of the discourse around user experience is about the rights of the user — maybe because of what it’s called — but what if instead we focused on the human experience? Might we be able to extend our purview to all of the people affected by the systems we aim to improve?

I was very fortunate to work on a project with Reprise Media last year in which I helped to redesign a piece of software they use internally (I’ll leave it at that for confidentiality purposes). The best part the gig for me was uncovering some significant inefficiencies in the process that surrounded the software, some that even the department’s manager was unaware of. And this guy is very hands on with his staff, and very with it. But he doesn’t shadow them all day every day. He doesn’t sit and ask them about the difficulties they’re facing in getting their jobs done well — and even if he did, they probably wouldn’t answer 100% truthfully because he’s their boss.

It felt really wonderful to help meet the needs of users who are inside the company, many of whom had probably never felt considered before. I’d love the opportunity to do more work like this, but moreso, I’d love for more companies to start thinking of their own employees’ needs with as much gravity as they do their customers’.

The fact is, if your staff isn’t healthy and happy, your customers certainly won’t be. So take a moment to look inside. You might be alarmed at what you find.

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  • tuomoks

    So true and so old fashioned. I'm old enough working with old-time CEO's (in huge companies!) who took care of all employees, the trust and loyalty were keywords in a successful company / enterprise. The “funny” thing – it worked, all these companies kept growing, everyone happy, etc until they changed to the modern “managed” mode? Most (billion $ companies?) are now gone? Maybe this has something to do with it?

    Hundreds of cases I remember, delegating the power and responsibility to the level who actually did the job (no, managers don't work, they facilitate – help to get the results!), asking employees honest questions, asking before the decision the individual who were actually executing the work, seeing everyone as equal (sometimes the most difficult task!), and so on, and so on. Sometimes wonder do such leaders, yes – they are leaders, not managers – exist anymore? Or is everything really today just working for selfish purposes no matter how much you already have, how much it will hurt others – stock holders and employees equally!

  • http://twitter.com/damrauja Jackie Damrau

    I watched every episode of this show. They were great and I was amazed at how many CEOs were not capable of doing the jobs they were put into. Some of them seemed real honest, others I'm not so sure of.

    I wish more CEOs and other C-level executives would come down to the trenches in their companies to see the good and the bad that their decisions make on the workforce. The ones doing the actual work sometimes have a better pulse on the business than the ones sitting in offices who never get out to meet the actual workers.