During her comments in the executive session, CBS’s President of Entertainment, Nina Tassler, couldn’t say enough good things about the network’s new reality series, “Undercover Boss,” which they’re opting to premiere immediately after the Super Bowl. It’s an act that’s either a sign of unabashed confidence in the series or a total Hail Mary pass, but despite how apropos the latter might be for the timeslot, having seen the pilot episode, I can absolutely see why they would be confident. Tassler said that “everybody who is sitting and watching the Super Bowl, be you 8 or 80, can stay right there and enjoy the program,” and she’s on the money with that assessment: who can’t get behind the idea of a boss coming down from his or her ivory tower and mixing it up with the frontline employees in the company? Everyone can relate to that…which, as it happens, is exactly what its creator, Stephen Lambert, had in mind.
“I was very keen to do something in the world of the workplace,” he said. “There’s so many scripted shows that are set in the workplace, but not that many set in the real workplace in the reality space on network television, and it seemed to me that it’s very relatable. Anybody who has had a boss who has worked in the company will understand this show, and for the person in charge to be able to see what their workers, their employees, are really doing seemed like an exciting idea.
“This is a show where the boss is on a dual mission,” Lambert explained. “One, he wants to find out what’s really going on on the front line, things he can’t see when he’s back at headquarters. Second, he’s looking for the unsung heroes of the company, so he’s looking for people that deserve some kind of thanks, maybe a promotion. It’s the mixture of kind of comedy that comes from the boss trying to do the front-line jobs and the emotion of these people, these coworkers that he spends time or she spends time with having that recognition that can be extremely emotional, and that was the idea behind the show.”
The first boss to go undercover on the show is Larry O’Donnell III, the President and COO of Waste Management (you’ve no doubt seen their trucks cruising around your neighborhood at one point or another), and when you watch the episode, you’ll see him doing everything from picking up trash to cleaning out Porta-Potties. Now, if you’re wondering how undercover he really is, given that he clearly has a camera crew following him, all they know is that he’s just this guy who’s working these frontline jobs…and, to hear him tell it, they got used to the camera’s presence pretty quickly.
“When I first went into this and I actually talked to our senior leadership team, I thought the most difficult part was going to be for me to be able to maintain my undercover status where the employees didn’t figure out who I was,” he said. “There were some managers along the way that recognized me, and I was able to get them off to the side and tell them to go home or stay in their office. You know, people ignored the cameras within about…it seemed like certainly within the first half hour. It was like they weren’t even there.”
And because it was like they weren’t there, the comfort level between O’Donnell and his new co-workers left them unafraid to occasionally vent their frustrations about the company. It was a point of pride for O’Donnell, however, that even the ones who were grumpy about this and that weren’t actually unhappy about working there.
“I was very pleased by the fact that, even though they were frustrated, they all seemed to love the company and they loved their job,” he said. “The other thing I was pleased about was everybody truly welcomed me in as a new employee. You know, your toughest day at any job is the first day that you’re out there, and people always asked me to come eat lunch with them. They always were very concerned about my safety. That’s something we’ve been trying to drive through the culture. That’s something personally that I took a lot of the satisfaction back with, but I think that they thought it was…they knew the cameras were there, but they seemed to buy into the fact that I was a new employee there to try to do a job and hopefully get invited back to work there the next day.”
The experience of going undercover has, as you might expect, given O’Donnell a fresh level of appreciation about what his frontline employees go through.
“There’s no doubt about it: they’ve got rough jobs,” he said. “They work long hours. They start their day at all hours of the morning. When I was doing this, I was starting the day at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, and some of the days I worked that whole shift, and then the afternoon, I would go work an afternoon and evening shift. These are tough jobs. One thing I will say I did take away is I think every employee truly shows up and wants to do a good job. I don’t care if you’re a manager or a frontline employee. I think they want to feel appreciated, but at the same time, they want to have a voice. And this certainly opened my eyes that I’ve got to make sure we’ve giving those frontline employees a voice in whatever decisions that we’re making so that we make the right decision.”
Lambert said that, although many companies have been enthusiastic about the idea of appearing on “Undercover Boss,” there have most definitely been some that have taken a pass on the show’s offer to participate.
“Some people aren’t interested in it,” he admitted. “But once we get into a serious dialogue with companies, they all can see why it’s an attractive thing to do. The boss has got to be someone who is willing to show a little bit of the faults of the company as well as what’s good about the company, and that takes a certain amount of courage. The reassuring thing for any boss is they get the opportunity to fix that problem when they discover it when the camera is there. Obviously, I think if you are a company that’s got big, dark secrets, you shouldn’t let ‘Undercover Boss’ come make a show about you.”
Lambert feigned amnesia when asked to name names…particularly when someone asked outright if Nike had been one of those companies to take a pass (“I can’t remember,” he said, with what some might describe as a twinkle in his eye), but he did reveal the names of several of those who did take “Undercover Boss” up on their offer, including 7-Eleven, Hooters, and White Castle.
To close, let’s bring it back full circle to this completely kick-ass timeslot that the series has received for its debut, something that Lambert describes quite rightly as “extraordinary.”
“It’s like winning the jackpot,” he admitted. “But having said that, I’m slightly worried. I hope CBS doesn’t expect us to build on the audience…”