Is 'Undercover Boss' Too Exploitative of Employees?
By Mike Ryan Posted Feb 9th 2010 05:15PM
Let's say the head honcho's name is -- as in the case of Sunday night's premiere of 'Undercover Boss,' featuring the Waste Management CEO posing as a regular employee -- Larry O'Donnell. "Did you hear?" co-workers will gab, "Larry O'Donnell is visiting today," followed by a sense of excitement and anxiety. It's not just that it's their boss. No, it's mostly because it's the guy they've seen in those corporate videos explaining the new employee referral policy. And in the eyes of that particular company, a celebrity. But to us, the people not in that particular company, Larry O'Donnell is not a celebrity; no different than the guy on the corner selling hot dogs or the lady I spoke to today to dispute a credit card charge. Now, thanks to CBS's 'Undercover Boss,' that's no longer the case. Now these company big wigs are on network television ... and there's a lot not right about that.
Look, a lot of us have jobs that we do -- and many do very well -- that, well, we think of as "just a job." It pays the bills and, for the most part, we just want to go in, do our work, then go home. That's it. We certainly -- as in the case of the employees of Waste Management, the featured corporation on Sunday's episode -- wouldn't want to be filmed scrambling to our time clock after lunch so we're not docked two minutes for every minute late (a policy that, it appears, had been corrected by the end of the episode). Or, worse, urinating into a tin can during a daily garbage route because there's no women's restroom on the route. Watching people, you know, earn money so they can buy food. Hey, but it makes good television, right? No, no it doesn't. It's bad enough when your boss monitors your e-mails. Imagine having a bad day at work and it's broadcast on national television -- right after the most watched event of the year, the Super Bowl.
The worst part: The employees featured don't make a dime from their appearance. Sure, a couple of them received promotions, which included a nice little raise after Larry O'Donnell took notice of their performance. And I'm sure the ones who happened to do well that day -- assuming a few weren't tipped off; I'm not 100 percent convinced they weren't -- are thrilled about the exposure and increase in pay. Do you think they would still be as thrilled once they find out what one 30-second commercial slot costs on a post-Super Bowl broadcast? A post-Super Bowl broadcast in which they were the stars?
So, yeah, there does seem to be a sense that these people -- who are just trying to earn a living -- are being exploited on national television with no compensation. It's a time-honored tradition to complain about management at work. It can build rapport with co-workers. The United States military is based on this premise. Though, most do have a tendency to come off as buffoons on national television when they're complaining about "the man" to the new guy -- who just happens to be "the man." Oops.
Look, Larry O'Donnell came off as a nice enough guy. Though, he did have a tendency to overdo his requests of secrecy to colleges who knew about his ruse. "I don't want to blow my cover!" he would emphatically plea. Yes, "blow your cover" -- it appears he was watching too many Jason Bourne movies before this assignment. So, it's not O'Donnell that's at fault; it's just the premise of this show -- without paying its participants just, even in the world of Waste Management, smells rotten.
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