Friday, February 12, 2010

Man Undercover

There's one word that sums up the new CBS series Undercover Boss – "Meh!" In fact to paraphrase Lucy Van Pelt of all the "Meh" shows out there, Undercover Boss may be the "Meh-iest." I'm not saying that it's a bad show, but it's not a good show. It is probably a better fit for Friday nights on most networks and for the summer on all networks.

Undercover Boss, based on a British series of the same name, debuted after Sunday night's Super Bowl game and as a result had good ratings. But the problem is that while the premise seems sound the execution left me with a ton of questions, and the whole thing seemed flat.

The first episode of Undercover Boss followed Lawrence O'Donnell III, President and COO of Waste Management, which is one of the two largest waste disposal companies in North America. And here is where the problems start for me. The introduction to the show – before we met O'Donnell – made a big thing about out of touch CEOs that didn't care about the little guy and how it hurt in this time of economic troubles. The problem is that Waste Management is generally describes as one of the best companies in terms of corporate ethics. In 2008 and 2009 the company was named by business magazine Ethisphere as one of the most ethical companies in the world. And for his part O'Donnell comes across as pretty level-headed and likable sort of guy. He has an attractive but age-appropriate wife, a son and a daughter. O'Donnell's daughter suffered a Brain Injury as a child as a result of a doctor who failed to follow proper procedures; as a result he is a stickler for doing things the proper way in his business. In terms of safety it is not a particularly bad attitude to take.

When O'Donnell first notified the members of his executive team that he was going undercover to work for the company at what amounted to entry level positions there was a certain amount of surprise not to mention an attitude that amounted to "Is he serious?" Indeed he was. Going undercover as "Randy Lawrence" an unemployed construction worker who is being followed by a documentary film crew as he starts a new career in the waste management industry, O'Donnell gets a first-hand look at what's going on at his company at various locations. His first working day is at a recycling plant in Syracuse, New York where he's put onto a line to separate cardboard and trash from paper on a conveyor belt. Almost immediately he has difficulties getting all of the unwanted material off of the belt which to him seems to be moving impossibly quickly. Sandy, the woman who is training him informs him that this is the slowest line in the plant. But the real revelation comes when a piece of cardboard that "Randy" apparently missed jams a machine and they are forced to take their half hour lunch break early. "Randy" is shocked when Sandy suddenly bolts for the door in the middle of a conversation. The machine breakdown is lasting longer than the 30 minutes of their break and she has to clock in so as not to clock in late. The local plant manager has instituted a policy that docks an employee two minutes pay for every minute they are late clocking in.

The next working Day, "Randy" is relocated to Pompano Beach Florida where he works picking up trash that's blowing around at a landfill. His boss there is Walter, a man has little patience for able bodied workers who can't measure up to his standards – in this case filling a bag with scrap paper every ten minutes. At lunch "Randy" learns that Walter is on dialysis but is still able to do his job. Randy hadn't been able to measure up before lunch and isn't able to after lunch. Walter Fires him, which according to O'Donnell is the first time anyone has ever fired him from a job.

And so it goes. One day "Randy" is in Rochester, New York meeting Jaclyn, a woman who has one official job and several other posts that she's unofficially filling and is still in danger of losing her house. The next day he's cleaning portable toilets at a fair in Houston (where Waste Management's corporate headquarters is located) with Fred, a man who is extremely cheerful in his work despite the nature of the job.

Maybe the most eye-opening event for "Randy" comes on the final day when he works on a garbage collection truck with Janice, again in Syracuse. She has a bit of a grudge with "corporate" because of productivity targets that O'Donnell himself had put in place. The implementation of these policies includes supervisors who check up on how fast the collection trucks accomplish the requirement of collecting from 300 homes per day. Feeling under pressure to complete the requirements which she feels doesn't take her gender into account she resorts to peeing in a tin can rather than taking normal restroom breaks. Still, she manages to develop relationships with various customers along the route. Most touching for O'Donnell is when he meets a mentally challenged woman who has written a poem for Janice.

At the end of the week, O'Donnell retires the "Randy Lawrence" identity and reveals himself to the people that he worked with, who have no idea why they have been brought to Houston. There are no really big changes that O'Donnell makes from his time in the field although the show tries to make it seem like there are. He personally takes the manager of the plant in Syracuse to task for the docking policy that had Sandy so worried, and he arranges for Walter to have extra time off so that he can work with other dialysis patients. Indeed it is later revealed that Walter has become a health mentor within the company. He compliments Fred on his attitude and arranges for him to address senior managers He makes Jacklyn a supervisor – her first task is to hire two people to fill the jobs that she previously held, and arranged for her to be given salary status and eligibility for bonuses. Finally he explains to Janice that he empathises with her concerns over the productivity quotas and promises to work with her to help improve conditions for female workers within the company. Most of this is still ongoing, although Fred has left Waste Management to work in a hospital.

I have a lot of problems with this show. For example I don't know why the various plants in different parts of the country were chosen for this show. Was it because the producers pre-screened the various facilities within the company – which is not only across the United States but is very important within Canada – for various conflicts, or did they follow the idea that you can find a story anywhere. What would have happened if everywhere that O'Donnell had gone was full of happy employees who loved their jobs just the way they were without any complaints at all? Obviously that wasn't going to happen simply because the concepts put forward by corporate headquarters are put into real terms by the local managers like the guy in Syracuse who decided that clocking in a minute late would mean being docked two minutes pay. (Indeed the Syracuse operation seems to have huge problems with management since that was the same operation where Janice was concerned about supervisors following her truck to make sure she accomplished the productivity goals.)

Setting aside that however are two concerns. First of all Lawrence O'Donnell seems like an essentially good guy who is concerned with his company and his employees. There are things that are wrong with the company but it's not so much that O'Donnell is deliberately creating a hostile work environment so much as the fact that the policies are sound ideas that are being applied locally in a way that isn't sensitive to either the employees or what corporate headquarters is trying to implement. O'Donnell isn't the sort of guy that the voice-over that introduces the show is talking about. It might be interested in seeing a boss who really isn't so concerned with what's going on down the line within his company seeing how their policies were affecting employees, but of course such a CEO would never appear on a show like this. The other major thing I was hoping to see was O'Donnell making sweeping changes within his company; that seeing up close the sort of things that were going on would lead to big changes within Waste Management's corporate culture. That didn't happen. With respect to the people who were "Randy's" bosses, the changes that O'Donnell implemented were to a large degree very personal to them. It was great that Jacklyn was put on salary and given a better position in Syracuse but it doesn't do a lot for some man or woman in a different plant who is filling a number of jobs "unofficially" and is only being paid for their "official" job. The only areas where there are opportunities for real change come in Sandy and Janice's stories, both of which seem to reflect some of the worst attributes of efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's time and motion studies. In the case of Sandy's story it is apparent that there is a need to clarify policy regarding docking pay for clocking in late since the one manager took it in a different direction than O'Donnell intended for them to go. In the case of Janice, her story is more far reaching if it does change the way that the productivity goals are implemented and perhaps makes things better for lower level female workers.

In the end Undercover Boss lacks many of the qualities that I would like to see in this sort of reality show. There is little in the way of conflict; far less than on shows like Supernanny, Wife Swap or even Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (okay, I only watch the last of these). At the same time, in O'Donnell at least you have a boss who wants to change what is wrong, but the changes that this experience allows him to make are at best minor and "local" rather than "global." For the most part change for specific individuals that he met while he was "Randy" rather changes to the way that the company works overall. Add onto that some questions about the way that locations and people that he would be working with were selected and the show becomes less than a success for me. It certainly didn't deserve the post-Super Bowl slot (I'd have put the first episode of the new season of The Amazing Race but by now you know that The Race is my favourite reality show and high on the list of my TV shows overall, so I'm a bit prejudiced). The show was competently done for what it was, but between the lack of real conflict and the absence of real, significant change this show really doesn't do it for me. Instead of running it on Sundays after The Amazing Race CBS should have saved it for the summer. It earns too much of a "Meh" from me to be on at such an important time on Sunday nights.

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