The Two Interesting Things about “Undercover Boss.”

This reality show, which premiered after the Super Bowl, has top guys at companies posing as entry-level employees in order to learn what’s really going on in the places they run. In the first episode, the President and COO of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell, posed as new hire “Randy Lawrence,” toiling alongside the working stiffs at WM cleaning out porta-potties, riding the back of a garbage truck, and picking up litter at a landfill.

We’re meant to observe that the top execs in their corporate ivory towers, if only they knew what it was like for those at the bottom who “really do the work,” would not only run their companies more humanely but more efficiently — because the folks down below have so much to teach them about operational realities. That was certainly the lesson we were meant to take away from the premiere episode. But more interesting are the things the show can’t admit it is telling us, but which it is:

  1. In America, physiognomy is destiny. Larry O’Donnell may change his $2000 business suit for a work uniform when he goes undercover, but he can’t change his bone structure, and a world of difference separates him from the proles down below. They have faces that look run over by a Mack Truck; they carry too much weight around; they waddle when they walk. He, on the other hand, while being no movie star, has classically symmetrical features, and a weight-to-height ratio that is what every health insurance company chart demands, along with perfect posture and a graceful gait. They have dialects; he speaks perfect mid-American English. Dress them all alike — put them all in identical business suits or identical jumpsuits — and you’d have no trouble picking the COO out of the lineup. (If the ostensible subtext of the show is to prove the democratic ideal that a CEO/COO could successfully pose as a worker-bee because we’re all basically alike, the show, based on episode one, demonstrates the opposite.) Any number of studies have indicated that people who match our society’s ideals of appearance tend to get hired faster, earn more money, and advance further in their careers, but Undercover Boss is the living proof we don’t really want to see. The real lesson of the show is that people who look and sound like Larry O’Donnell are the ones who make it to the corporate boardrooms, while people who look and sound like the Waste Management guys who clean out the porta-potties are going to be the guys who clean out the porta-potties. They haven’t got a chance.
  2. Those who run companies can be alpha-dog heroes, those who do the grunt work can be working-class heroes, but those in between who are charged with executing the orders down the chain of command — without whom no organization can actually work — are just jerks. Larry O’Donnell is filled with awe for the salt-of-the-earth types he meets on his odyssey, but in his encounters with their immediate bosses and supervisors, he shows nothing but contempt. They’re pond scum in his eyes (and therefore the audience’s), not capable of “really doing the work” and not capable of making the big decisions either. Before Larry went underground and learned to love the working man and woman, what do you think he would have done with any of these middle managers who failed to drive the working man and woman hard enough to hit the profit targets for their divisions that Larry had dictated? But now, because of Larry’s epiphany, they’re the show’s villains. Of course, Larry gives lip service to his having been “responsible” for some of the bad workplace rules he sees being imposed, but the bullying way he feels free to talk with the middle-managers — a tone which contrasts with the veneration in his voice when he talks with the “working folks” — tells us how he really feels (and how we’re supposed to feel). In the cosmology of Undercover Boss, the top boss is inherently a good guy because he gets his hands dirty trying to figure out to make a better company; the workers at the bottom are inherently good guys because they’re the ones getting their hands dirty every day. It’s the folks in between for whom we’re allowed to reserve our hate. Woe be to you, American white collar guy who’s not in charge. This is a meme from movies (think William Atherton as the obstructive mid-level a-hole in Ghostbusters, among a thousand other examples before and since) which seems to run deep in American culture, and which Undercover Boss successfully carries into the world of “reality.”

At episode’s end, when Larry moves to promote, elevate, or otherwise help to self-actualize the quartet of workers he has encountered, a smell of noblesse-oblige condescension clings about the entire enterprise. Was this about changing Waste Management into a better company, or was this just a lottery we witnessed, with four lucky winners, a 21st century take on Queen for a Day for the new economy? It was the latter.

Next Sunday’s episode looks from the previews to be exposing some truly egregious workplace practices at Hooter’s, in which instance middle-management might deserve the audience’s wrath. Going forward, I think this show might be worth watching, not for what it says that it’s saying about our attitudes toward work and the workplace, but for the more interesting things it denies it’s saying.

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