Undercover Boss

Column by Jack Goldberg


I must admit I was intrigued after watching CBS' reality show "Undercover Boss." The show basically follows high level CEOs as they go "undercover" in their own companies to discover what it means to be a rank and file employee.

As an HR person, I thought the idea was pretty slick. We are always looking for ways to get honest feedback from employees and for management to learn what is really happening in the trenches. We have at our disposal a number of tried and true techniques -- suggestion boxes, 360-degree performance reviews, surveys and exit interviews. These all seem to pale in comparison to a CEO actually going undercover and learning firsthand -- in real-time and unfiltered.

Now, realistically, most of us don't work in companies that are large enough where we would just blend in and not be recognized. This doesn't mean though that we still wouldn't benefit from the experience. True, you wouldn't technically be undercover, but you could still learn some valuable things by spending a few days working in the warehouse or even sitting at the receptionist desk. What about taking some turns as a route driver or running the cash register? Instead of the "front of the house," what if you worked a week in the kitchen?

To do it right, you would not just be observing; you would actually be doing the job. And doing the job would mean shutting up and working -- not commenting, suggesting or managing. You would clock-in and clock-out, eat and take breaks like everyone else. No special treatment, excuses or exceptions. If it is hard, confusing, and you are exhausted at night, then chances are you are doing it right.

Here are some areas that should be considered before undertaking this "undercover operation":

  • Make it as realistic as possible. Go through the experience just like a new employee would. Get the same training; do the same job; become an employee so you can experience through your own eyes what the first day on the job really looks like.
  • Listen to employees. This is a listening experience not a talking experience. Listen to what other employees say about the company and the job. Yes, you can ask a few questions, but mostly you are observing and listening. The small stuff matters too. Is the order processing paperwork confusing? Is the warehouse cold? Is the equipment old and broken? Is the lunch room clean? Do you feel safe?
  • Listen to customers. Chances are the customers don't know you are the boss. In this case you really can be undercover. What do the customers really think about your products and services? If you were a customer, would you enjoy the experience of doing business with your company?
  • Is the job hard? This seems like a silly question, but one of the comments often made by the CEOs on the show is that the jobs are much more difficult than they thought. Is this true in your case? Do your feet hurt at the end of the day? Is the job perhaps more difficult than it needs to be? Has the company inadvertently done things (i.e. established policies) that just make the job more complicated than it needs to be? Do employees have all the tools and training to do the job as productively and safely as possible?
  • Look for recognition. Pay attention to how the employees around you are being recognized for their work. Is there a feedback system that is positive and rewarding, or is the work environment threatening and intimidating? Are people working hard because they care about the company, or are they just grinding it out until quitting time? Is morale good or are people afraid?
  • Evaluate the training. Even though you technically are not undercover, someone still had to train you on a front line job. Was the training well organized and effective, or was it more of a "sink or swim" situation? Were you confident in your newfound skills or overwhelmed and confused?
  • Give feedback. This part can be a little tricky, but once you finish your "undercover" work you are going to want to provide feedback to your management team and to your employees. Just like when we do surveys, if you ask people for feedback (and they provide it) you are going to have to act on it. This means publicly taking some concrete initiatives based upon what you learned. For some this may even be a bit humbling. Things may not be as good as you thought or were told. Either way, use the feedback constructively and follow through with improvements.

Yes, HR people will still want to do surveys and exit interviews to find out what employees think, and I suppose even the old suggestion box has a place. But today's CEO can perhaps get a little more creative and spend a week or so in someone else's shoes. Make it as real as possible. Listen more than talk. If you have some sore muscles, you are probably doing it right. Pay attention to how people are rewarded and trained and if you do it right, you may even learn something.

Not bad for a day's work!

If you need some advice or assistance in "going undercover," getting employee feedback, creating a better workplace or any other human resources issue, call on Forté Human Resources.



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