Monday, February 15, 2010

Lessons from the Line Undercover Style

This morning many bloggers, writers and critics are weighing in on the new television show, Undercover Boss. After two episodes, I have found I like the premise but the logistics make it difficult for me to believe that the employees didn't know something was up. If cameras are following a new hire around at work how open would you really be in that situation? I know editing and scripting have a lot to do with the end product.

I do believe that CEO's should have contact with the front line and do that often. By the front line I mean with employees that are delivering to the customers on a daily basis AND actually meeting with customers to get their perceptions of the brand and service delivery. From the front line perspective I think the CEO's from Waste Management and Hooter's probably gained a lot of good information that they can now TAKE ACTION on to be a better company. The key is now that the big hoopla is over, what are those CEO's going to do to make things different?

Here are some lessons I think any company can learn from the front line:

1) Which processes work and which do not. Sometimes processes are developed at corporate with cost cutting in mind with out regards to the impact on employees and customers.

2) Polices and procedures can actually work against you. At Waste Management, in Episode 1, the employees were being docked double for being late for lunch. I am sure that cost the company more than just dollars: morale, engagement and productivity took a hit as well.

3) Managers are sometimes just idiots. Jimbo the Hooter's manager had a blatant disrespect for women. This behavior will never be addressed by training as one of the leaders at Hooter's declared. Disrespect unfortunately is in your character and is hard to "unwire" that trait. He may be on his best behavior for awhile, but it will come back up again. I read a lot of blogs and tweets that said the CEO, Coby Brooks should have fired him on the spot. I don't think he had that authority since Jimbo was a franchised employee...wasn't Coby's decision.

4) Customers should be listened to. In the Hooter's episode Coby took to the streets to promote the restaurant. He asked some passers by about Hooters and the ladies responses were, "degrading to women" and "I wouldn't let my daughter work here." Depending on what Coby wants to do and what he means by expanding his customer base, he may have to take actions to change the perception of Hooters. He did state he wanted to create a marketing campaign that showed Hooters girls are people too while keeping the uniforms the same.

5) Sometimes the top Leadership just loses touch with the business. Leadership forgets how hard it is to serve customers, they forget how their decision impact the workforce, and sometimes they lose touch with the people that make it happen everyday. I was amazed at the every day life stories that were uncovered so far that seemed to shock the CEO's, single moms, tough schedules, time management, bad bosses, illnesses, etc. All of that is just everyday life for the working class....

I also found it very shocking that not one person recognized the CEO's even in their slight disguises. For Coby he hadn't been in one location since he was 16, no chance of blowing a cover there. That speaks volumes to me. I contrast that with a big box retailer that I know and how it is very common for the CEO and his leadership team to WALK the stores on a weekly basis. I think his cover would be blown by store 2.

My goal would be NOT to be able to go undercover in my company because so many people knew me that it would be impossible!!

What are your thoughts on "Undercover Boss?" What lessons has your company learned front the line?


Anonymous said...

You would think that Hooters would have something in their franchise contract that would allow them to be able to better protect their brand as "disrespecting women" is very counter to who they are as an organization

Unknown said...

I agree with you regarding brand protention int he licensee agreement. I have worked with ohter franchising organizations and I believe it is a real sticky area as far as liability and who the employee really works for. Would love to hear a legal opinion on this one! Thanks for reading and for posting!

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

I have not watched the show, I am not really a fan of "reality TV". But there has been alot written about it so far. But, even without having seen it I agree, I think it should be the goal of a CEO to not be able to go undercover. I think the CEO should be visible and recognizable to employees and customers alike.

I also have a hard time believing the set up. But if it acts as a lesson to other CEOs then ok. The question is, how many are really going to watch this show.

Unknown said...

It is really interesting what they "uncover" while undercover. I think what would be really interesting to know is, if they are doing thing any differently today. I hear Hooters is for sale??? Thanks for reading and commenting.

Debbie King said...


I too have been watching the show and interested in the experiences the CEO and employees are having. I agree with all you have written relative to how "real" are people when there is a camera running. However, with that said, I would add the following:

1 Too often executives are relying more on what their managers report back to them, than having front line experiences themselves. Just look at how many managers were around Coby's table. When teaching Organizational Behavior, I often use The Poorly Informed Walrus case study developed by Barbara McCain from the University of Oklahoma City to examine communications. CEO's need to be very aware of not only the impact their management style has on communications, but also the impact the culture has on delivering information that may not be too popular to hear. Leaders should do everything they can to promote open, honest and transparent communications, even when the message is tough to hear.

2 Especially in this economy, I think CEO's can benefit from the undercover experience as they look for strategic ways to improve their organizations for the future. Yes, I agree, they should already be a familiar face, but I think for the most part they are so busy in the executive suite that the folks in the field will not recognize them. Businesses should be preparing to take the next innovate step in preparing their organizations for a slow, but sure economic recovery. What are those products and services customers will return to? And if they won't be returning to what's currently offered, what else can be done to give them something they want and can afford? I think getting a handle on what employees in the field think, as well as asking the customers could go a long way to help answer those questions.

3 Whether the company operation is yours or just the name (in the case of franchises) I think it's still important for the organization to protect the brand and the reputation. Perhaps it should be a regular part of the HR Managers job to take on an unannounced observation role in the field to identify those managers doing an outstanding job, as well as those that require performance improvement coaching and/or disciplinary actions. Actions like some they have shown in these two shows are risky with regards to lawsuits, as well as loss of business reputation.

4 Lastly I would comment on the undercover experience providing the CEO with an opportunity to experience first hand a workforce and customer base influenced by intergenerational and cultural differences. The pace at which organizations are awakening to this reality is sad. We seem to have accepted the technological benefits and impacts on the workplace, but at the same time, we haven't recognized, accepted and reacted to the social benefits and impacts the chanaging global society is having on the way we work together. Getting down in the trenches may help to open the eyes of the leaders who can do something about that.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond. The show is an interesting concept. I definately see it as a way for CEO's to live vicariously through the experiences of someone else to question what would they uncover if they found themselves in those shoes. Just think of the impact some of these discoveries could have in updating and targeting their strategic business plans.

Deborah A. King, SPHR

Unknown said...

Wow, Debbie thanks for taking the time to create such a provoking response. I knew you would be interested in the show for the same reasons I am. I love all four of your follow up points.

I especially was struck by "Just think of the impact some of these discoveries could have in updating and targeting their strategic business plans." I hadn't even thought of that, but that should be the driver for the CEO to get out on the front see if strategy is 1) being executed 2) is understood by all 3) needs changing or updating.

I can always depend on you to keep me thinking!!

Thanks for commenting!