Reality TV series ‘Undercover Boss’ exposes cracks in the system


KANSAS CITYY, Mo. — If you stayed on CBS after the Super Bowl, you may have watched “Undercover Boss.”

The first episode of the new reality TV series
tailed the CEO of a waste management company as he posed as a newbie on
front-line jobs that his employees do every day.

He learned firsthand that some of them do hard,
messy work for low pay. And he vowed to make some policy changes to
make some of their work lives easier.

Will there be a sequel? Don’t you want to know what really happened after the cameras left?

What struck me most were the faces of his midlevel managers when he reported on his undercover experiences to them.

I saw defensiveness. Fear. Skepticism. Even a smirk.

Did you see that plant supervisor who sat at a desk, watching his employees on closed-circuit video?

Oh, yeah, he looked real pleased that his draconian time-clock policies were challenged.

The top boss said he never intended that time
policies be construed to justify docking two minutes of pay for every
minute an employee was late clocking in from the 30-minute lunch break.

It made for good TV: The top boss who had his eyes
opened. The midlevel boss who got his comeuppance. The entry-level
workers who prevailed with good humor and dedication.

But such a show leaves much unresolved.

Corporate budgets are what they are. In most cases,
a Scrooge-reawakening moment won’t alter pay scales by much. Promotions
to bigger salaries and profit-sharing aren’t going to fall like rain.

And, face it, some employees don’t deserve policy
leeway or raises. Remember that plant’s clock-or-dock policy? It
probably was implemented because of time abuse by bad apples.

So good workers as well as bad are held to strict policies. The operation can’t run efficiently without them.

An idyllic workplace would have all the rowers in the boat and pulling at the same pace. In the real world, that doesn’t happen.

So we get rules. That’s OK. What’s not OK is when
rules are imposed by midlevel martinets who get drunk with power and
forget how to get in the boat and row, too.

When those managers are left unchecked because they met the budget, that’s when morale and retention problems occur.

Shame on the top executives who need to go undercover to find that out.

(c) 2010, The Kansas City Star.

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