I hadn’t watched it in a while, but the other day I caught an episode of Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen it, UB is a “reality series” in which a senior executive of some big company with a large number of low wage workers in their employ puts on a cheesy disguise and spends a brief amount of time - a day - in a series of generally dreadful entry level jobs.
There’s some bogus pretext for why there are camera crews following the new kid in town around: training film or – more cutthroat but more cutting edge – a potential hire in competition for a job with another (mythical) poor bastard. (Has the economy and/or the culture gotten so terrible that we assume it’s okay to pit people against each other for the glory of snagging a job cleaning out porta-potties or laundering restaurant uniforms or fishing kid poop out of resort swimming pools ? Maybe Hunger Games isn’t so far-fetched after all.)
What Mr. (or occasionally Ms.) Big – disguised with a bad wig, cheap glasses, a “fat belt”, and the company’s polyester uniform – learns at each stop is that the little people in the company are, for the most part, earnest, hard-working, loyal to the core, take pride in their work, and are grateful for whatever crumbs are cast their way.
Oh, occasionally – in my watching experience, albeit a limited one, this is rare - there’s a “bad apple” who makes snarky comments, grouses about the company, does a half-assed job and is probably more representative of the overall company workforce than the goody-two-shoes who come in an hour early to polish their garbage truck. But mostly we see the good employees, who are unfailingly pleasant whatever crap befalls them in the course of their workday, and who take on the task of training the fake new employee with miraculous zeal and attention to the nuance and detail of whatever mundane, boring, and crappy job they have. (Which is actually quite touching. Who doesn’t want to take pride in their work?)
On second thought, though, maybe these goody-two-shoes – lucky/plucky to have those jobs – are the new standard. Yes, master, I am not even worthy of this job, but I kiss the feet of those managing this company who allow me to have it, despite my non-worthiness.
Anyway, each of the nicey-nice employees has such a sad-sack back story that you begin to feel that they’re hand-picked by HR. They’ve taking a sick daughter and her kids into their one bedroom apartment; they need an operation they can’t afford; their house burnt down and they’re living in a minivan.
These back stories are all revealed in the one day that Mr. Big spends with each chosen employee, and are revealed with astonishing rapidity and candor. (Hmmmm. Maybe they are handpicked by HR and coached by the TV crew.)
But the reveal of personal detail isn’t the only reveal, of course.
Once Mr. Big has seen enough, he’s back to corporate HQ sans bad wig, cheap glasses, fat belt and polyester, and it is revealed to the nicey-nice employee that the Joe Schmoe they spilled their guts to is actually – in the case of the most recent episode I watched – Joe DiDomizio, President and CEO of the Hudson Group, which runs the newsstand/bookstores in airports.
Mr. Big has a heartfelt chat with the employee, does something nice – pays off the student loans, pays the rent for a year, pays for the carpal tunnel operation, buys them a car. He may also give them a promotion, or creates a new BS position – “you’ll be our ambassador of goodness”, and bestow a decent sized check on them. (In the episode I just watched, those checks ranged from $20K to $40K.)
Back in the day, the winners on Queen for a Day got something like a new washing machine and a half-dozen Ship ‘n Shore blouses. While the swag has improved, the subtext remains pretty much the same: a gift and a few bucks, problem solved!
Yes, for the employees who get an Undercover Boss promotion, some of their problems – trying to support a family on near-minimum wage – may be somewhat alleviated.
But when I see an employee in tears because Mr. Big is going to pay for her carpal tunnel surgery, and let her take the time off to recover, I’m thinking that this sort of benefit should be available to all employees, no?
Oh, once in a blue moon Mr. Big implements a sweeping change that will impact all employees. Hudson Group is going to update their technology! Wow! But I have seen precious little reflection on these shows about the overall economic plight of their low-skill, low-paid workforces who are one blown transmission or one broken leg aware from complete disaster.
For the $100K they gift to the chosen few who appear on the show, a company could get put in place some computer-based training to improve skills for a whole lot of employees – skills that might help these employees get up from under their low-paid jobs.
Not that I have the answer – and we’ll take the topic on again in slightly different form later this week, if I finally get around to a Tom Perkins/Kristallnacht post – but this seems to me to be a conversation that we need to have.
Yes, people are better off working at low-paid jobs than not working at all.
But how do we take care of the working poor (a.k.a., the deserving poor) when they can’t patch things together? Should companies pay them more, and pass the increases on to the consumer (and it’s generally a pretty small change increase, by the way)? Or should the taxpayers pick up the difference, whether they shop at Hudson Books or not? (I’m actually a big fan of Hudson, as their presence generally means you can get a decent book in the airport. They only make the post because their CEO was the star of the episode of UB I just saw.)
I’m sure that all the CEO’s that appear on Undercover Boss get a real feel-good experience. All those Lord Bountiful checks distributed; all those tear-filled hugs; all those problems solved.
But do any of them actually sit down with their management team and ask about what’s going on with the thousands of other employees they have who didn’t get picked to be on Queen for a Day?