The ‘Undercover Boss’ and other lessons from reality TV

Have you watched “Undercover Boss,” the popular reality TV show?

I’m not much of a TV watcher but I kept hearing people refer to this show as “something you have just got to see.” In spite of my original skepticism, I must admit, I’m now a fan. In fact, I got to thinking…it’s too bad every leader can’t be an undercover boss. Or could they?

The ‘Undercover Boss’

In the “Undercover Boss,” the CEO of a large corporation goes “undercover” and disguises himself as a new employee who needs orientation and training (which is being filmed for corporate purposes). As the CEO is trained by various people, he learns what is really going on in the company. He becomes close to employees, who tell him how they really feel about management; and how the well-intentioned policies and procedures sometimes get in the way of doing the right things for the customer – and the employees.

In true TV-Land fashion, at the end of the show, the CEO’s eyes are opened and he reports back to his team of executives about his life in the trenches and how the company is going to make changes for the better.

Recently, a real TV news drama unfolded in Shanghai, when a group of angry workers held their boss hostage in their factory until their demands were met. Truth is stranger than fiction once again.

So, how could you be a little like the “Undercover Boss” and prevent a real-life drama of your own?

  • In service industries, use “secret shoppers” to experience your organization’s service. Have them report back – not just to senior leaders, but to the people on the front line. Results can be used to uncover barriers to service and to design customer service training. Empower employees with the information and invite their input and ideas (don’t use it to punish).
  • Use an outside firm to interview your customers, to find out what they really think of your service and products. You can do it yourself but you’ll get more honesty with an outside firm.
  • Have “skip level” meetings with people one or two levels down from the managers who report to you. Let your managers know what you are doing and why – to hear, first hand, what is working and what needs to improve. While doing this is unconventional, and will make some managers paranoid, it will be welcomed by your best managers. Use the information to work with the manager to make improvements with their team and across functions.
  • Conduct an “employee engagement survey.” These engagement surveys have become popular for the same reasons “Undercover Boss” is a top rated show. It gives employees a direct line to the top. Use the results to hold managers accountable for making needed changes.
  • Do a 360-feedback process for each leader. In a typical 360, feedback is gathered – through an online instrument or interviews – from the person’s boss, peers and employees. The resulting report is then used for ongoing coaching or a short-term development plan.

‘Restaurant Stakeout’ and ‘Mystery Diners’

Restaurant shows “Restaurant Stakeout” and “Mystery Diners” approach the discovery process a little differently. (Ok, so I admit I got sucked in to watching those, too.) In both shows, video cameras are positioned around the restaurant, so the owner can see what goes on when he or she isn’t there. They watch the goings-on with a restaurant consultant, in a control room.

The show must make every viewing restaurant owner paranoid about his or her employees – because they see even trusted, long-time employees steal food, break safety and health regulations, run their own catering businesses and flirt with the customers. The inevitable confrontation is always full of drama, terminations, denials and an overhaul of practices. It’s not only great reality TV; it’s a cautionary tale for any employer.

So, what can you do to find out what is really going on in your workplaces?

  • Interview new employees after they have been on the job for 90 days. Take advantage of their fresh eyes, to see barriers and opportunities with a new perspective.
  • Do exit interviews, but use an outside firm, so the departing employee is more likely to share the real reason they are leaving. Instead of keeping the results in HR, share the data with the leader and use it as an opportunity for coaching.
  • Stop in unexpectedly on second and third shifts. Not only will it convey that you care (they usually feel like second-class citizens on second and third shifts), you will likely raise expectations of performance.
  • Get out of your office and do “rounding” just like a doctor does rounds with patients. As you stop by work stations, ask questions such as, “What’s going well?” “Anyone deserve any extra recognition?” “Any process improvement ideas?” Expect all your managers to round on a regular basis – it’s becoming a leader best practice for good reason.
  • Tune in to complaints and dig deeper. Instead of waving off complaints as “just a disgruntled employee sounding off,” pay attention. Although some people are chronic complainers, most complaints are grounded in some truth. When you hear a complaint, see a drop in attendance, or experience higher than normal turnover, take it seriously and do a little digging.

All of these tips have one thing in common – diligence and preventive action will keep your workplace healthy, without the need for a reality TV intervention to right the wrongs.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach, organizational and leadership development strategist. She has a track record spanning more than 20 years, and is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve improvements. Email your question to Joan at and visit to search an archive of more than 1,500 of Joan’s articles. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500.

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