Undercover Boss, Visible Anarchy

I hadn’t previously seen CBS’ “Undercover Boss” until they aired an episode featuring someone I know and have done business with. Though it was an entertaining 60 minutes, some of it very funny and quite a bit highly emotional, I’m deeply troubled by this program’s premise and message.
Executives most likely appear on the show to get publicity for their companies (as opposed to taking the time and effort to put on a disguise to learn about what’s really going on), for what should be obvious reasons, and I do hope that’s the case, but I have to believe this: What’s troubling is the apparently great things that happen as a result of these close encounters between high ranking officials and lower level employees must unleash the laws of unintended consequences.

As a result of spending time with four rank-and-file employees, by the (new season premier) show’s end, this CEO awarded three promotions, two salary increases, promised to review compensation structure for two entire departments, and awarded substantial bonuses to each of the four people he spent time with. Seems nice enough until you consider it all from an organizational perspective.

How many layers of management did this CEO bypass to make these major decisions?  How many direct report supervisors had their credibility shattered as a result of the CEO intervening?  Of course, the majority of staff didn’t catch the lucky break of getting directly exposed to the CEO; does this make them less deserving of being awarded 5 and even 6 figure bonuses?  Going forward, can there be a true unity of command in an organization featured on “Undercover Boss” if employees know their CEO can and will override managerial decisions, or even policy?

In 1961 “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” debuted on Broadway, telling the story of J. Pierrpont Finch’s morally questionably rise from window washer to vice president. Certainly, everyone on “Undercover Boss” was far more committed to their jobs than Finch, but 50 plus years later the entertainment industry’s view of corporate American seems to be roughly the same: “Who you know matters far more than what you know.” Lucky breaks and style is more often than not more meaningful than substance and structure. In the highly transformative economic climate we live in, I can’t think of a worse message to deliver than this.

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