A Grim Reality (Show)

By Jane Weinkrantz



It’s not often that a reality show inspires me to write about it. Though countless hours have been spent deconstructing “ Jersey Shore ,” the show that provokes this column is CBS’s “Undercover Boss.”  For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is this: in every episode a CEO dons an elaborate disguise which may include a fat suit, facial hair, glasses or dreadlocks and tries to learn the work of several rank and file employees.  Frequently, the CEO was hired for his accomplished management background in a completely unrelated field and has little understanding of the service or product his company actually provides. (Think Cathie Black who went from being a publishing executive to Chancellor of New York City Schools.) The employees are told that the new guy---and the CEO is almost always a guy---is participating in a reality show whose premise is that two workers are filmed as they compete for the same job, a completely plausible concept to an audience all too familiar with needless competitions broadcast as entertainment, a high unemployment rate and an addiction to reprocessed reality. Past undercover bosses have included Don Fertman of Subway, Kevin Sheehan of Norwegian Cruise Lines, Sheldon Yellon of Belfor, a company that repairs homes after floods, fires and other disasters and Mark Mallory, the mayor of Cincinnati . According to the show’s intro, these CEOs are finding “radical” ways to “reconnect with their workforce.”

            At first, the viewer sees the boss in his usual surroundings, which often include an impressive office and an enormous home.  As the CEO changes into his alter ego, he is often a little anxious about maintaining his anonymity and curious to see how doing the job of an average worker will help him improve the company’s productivity and profitability.  Over the course of a few days, the CEO is trained by three competent and friendly workers in jobs that are incredibly physically strenuous or require a high level of mechanical skill and concentration.  The CEO packs moving trucks, operates industrial machinery, repairs city vehicles, waits tables on a cruise ship or gives out parking tickets for eight hours.  Sometimes, it is just work most of us would just consider very distasteful, like cleaning up road kill or sliding into the crawl space of a home that was recently flooded.

At first, the audience has a good laugh at the CEO as we discover that he is not used to working this hard. His back isn’t strong enough for lifting; his hands aren’t dexterous enough for fixing small objects or he is squeamish about some tasks. Even if the CEO is one who started at the bottom and worked his way up, technology has usually rendered the job he did 30 years ago pretty much unrecognizable.  We see the CEO frustrated, sweaty and flustered. Then, when it’s break time, the CEO listens to the employees discuss their jobs.  Generally, the workers are fairly upbeat and proud. They offer pointers to their secret CEO trainee and insights on how to get along. Over the course of a few days, they share some personal information, confiding in the faux co-worker that they are not sure they will be able to send their kids to college; that they are in foreclosure; that they have a medical condition which requires treatment so expensive it is out of reach; that they have no choice but to institutionalize their handicapped child because they were denied funds to modify their home; that their daughter is getting married and they just don’t know how they are going to pay for the wedding. Some mention two-year old promotions with additional responsibility, but no raises.  One person might want to advance at her job, but can’t afford the training and certification required. Others work two jobs or do double shifts regularly to make ends meet.

            What does the CEO usually take away from his experience doing work that makes your hands rough, your back ache and your feet tired? Does he say, “Wow. I had no idea that people can’t live on what I pay them.” Of course not. Some CEOs seem to gain a new respect for their work force---one was actually downright repentant--- but expressing respect is a different story.  As the show wraps up, the CEO calls each of the employees who appeared on “Undercover Boss” into his office individually. He reveals his true identity and describes the improvements he will make to the workplace, based on his recent experience. Paternally, he tells the worker how he admires his or her contribution to his firm and offers a gift worth about $10,000 or more. (Sometimes a portion of the gift is donated by another company.)  The employees are suitably touched and the camera closes in, the better to catch the tears forming in their eyes as they realize what a difference that $10,000 is going to make. Each episode finishes with the CEO calling all his employees together, showing a highlight film of his work bloopers and thanking everyone for their great contributions. He seems like a hell of a good guy and close-ups of the employees are accompanied by captions explaining what they did with their unexpected windfall: “Debbie was able to avoid foreclosure, “ or “Donald’s daughter was able to remain at community college,” or “Phillip got counseling for his post-traumatic stress disorder.” Occasionally, someone goes on a long overdue vacation. The caption over never says, “Rachel bought a Rolex,” or “Eric had all that plastic surgery he’s been wanting,” or “Felicia bet her $10,000 on a horse.”

You might want to find “Undercover Boss” touching, but the show begs the question: what happens to all the other people doing those same jobs who aren’t on “Undercover Boss” and don’t get $10.000 in largesse from their fairy godmother CEO? What would their captions say? “Ethel still hasn’t had her dental work done,” “Jimmy’s family is still eligible for food stamps,” or “Deidre and her three children will probably live with her mother for the next 20 years.”  What “Undercover Boss” makes clear is that our hardest working, most positive employees are not paid a living wage and that many chief executives are colossally indifferent or ignorant about how people must scrimp and save and work extra shifts just to obtain the basics of survival. The $10,000 bonus these employees get not only pays for itself several times over in public relations, but it’s a drop in the bucket when compared with what it would take to pay workers a decent salary.  Not surprisingly, one seldom hears the word “union“ on “Undercover Boss.”  It is not so much a reality show as a documentary about how far the American worker has fallen. Every week viewers can see how common it is to be employed full-time as a skilled laborer, live a frugal life and still not have enough money to support your family, your health and your home at once. Worse, no one seems to think this is an emergency.

The anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida will weaken the rights of those of us who can still make our professional voices heard as one until we too have to work double shifts to pay our bills and become pathetically grateful for things like dental coverage or the ability to afford not a new car, but a car repair---  that is, if our jobs are not among those cut entirely. The politicians who would strip us of our collective bargaining rights talk about cutting budgets and tightening belts. But, as the undercover CEOs remove their disguises and fly back to company headquarters in the corporate jet, it becomes all too clear that only one set of belts are expected to tighten.

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