As a recruiting tool for a worker uprising, Undercover Boss is first-rate: Who, numbed after hours of watching the Super Bowl, would not want to put Waste Management COO Larry O’Donnell’s head in one of the toilets he cleaned out?
The post-Super Bowl, huge-audience time period is usually used by a network to launch a new sitcom or drama. This year, we got a literally crappy reality show about highly-paid executives who deign to take off their expensive suits, tell their assistants to hold their BlackBerrys, and spend a week doing some of the work of their vastly lesser-paid employees. Wow: not fun, for either the pampered exec or for us as consumers of entertainment.
In its premiere, Undercover Boss informed us that O’Donnell is the head of “a $13 billion-dollar business,” and early on we saw footage of the honcho and his family golfing and water-skiing. Then O’Donnell donned a Waste Management jumpsuit; the cover-story for the camera crew accompanying him was that WM employees were told this was a “documentary [about] someone trying out for entry-level jobs.”
Pretty soon, O’Donnell was shown vacuuming out portable toilets at an amusement park; picking up trash on a windy day (the night’s true hero, Walter, fired O’Donnell for not being fast enough); and working on a recycling assembly line with a nice woman who had to gobble her lunch down in a 30-minute break and race to clock in after her meal, lest she be docked in her wages.
In other words, O’Donnell mingled with people like us, or with those of us who’ve had similarly non-executive, work-with-your-hands jobs over the years. To O’Donnell, however, these ordinary experiences were painful (“My back hurts”) and revelatory: Why, he had no idea that his lofty office’s demand to increase productivity would result in poor Sandy having to scurry to a time clock like a rat chasing her cheese! O’Donnell was shocked — shocked! — that a woman working on one of WM’s pick-up trucks has to “pee in a can” so she can meet her daily average of 300 homes a day!
When his week of back-twinging revelations was complete, O’Donnell couldn’t wait to get back into his necktie and cufflinks fast enough to deliver Undercover Boss‘ feel-good pay-off. He summoned his lowly employees to his office and promised various raises and improvements, as well as the establishment of a (groan) “task force” here and there to make sure life improves for his employees.
The latter were shown to be grateful and humble (who wouldn’t with cameras rolling and the boss doling out praise and money?). They deserved what he gave them … but so, it would seem from this hour, do an awful lot of other workers at the company who O’Donnell didn’t spend time with. You know who I felt the worst for? Kevin, the poor middle-management guy O’Donnell hauled in to grill about Sandy’s time-card-punching angst. That guy gets it coming and going: His employees resent him for implementing O’Donnell’s rules, then O’Donnell comes along and busts his chops. I want to see a Frontline documentary about poor Kevin….
And of course you wonder: How many thousands of other Waste Management workers will ever benefit from the Undercover Boss treatment? I’d love to hear about the trickle-down effect of what amounts to O’Donnell’s CBS-organized publicity stunt.
Hey, I’m no commie — I believe in a capitalist system that rewards hard work and enterprise with whatever profit someone can make. But this was one of the worst arguments for capitalism since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. No matter how nice a man O’Donnell may or may not be off-camera, on Boss he came off as clueless about the policies of his own company. That’s a guy who should be rewarded with a big salary and minions who nod in meetings at his every banality?
Did you watch Undercover Boss? What did you think?