Undercover Boss–A lesson in the Co-operative Difference

After the Superbowl, CBS presented its new non-scripted show, Undercover Boss. The premise is timely. CEO’s of major corporations lose the suits and go to work on the front-line without revealing their true identity. Can these bosses work under the corporate policy that they wrote?

The first episode featured President of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell. Larry gets to see first hand the effects of cost cutting measures designed to improve profitability and reward shareholders. Probably the most incredible moment occurs when Larry realizes that his policies essentially force staff to urinate in coffee cans that they carry with them as opposed to wasting precious minutes using a lavatory. In the end, Larry promises sweeping changes to honor the men and women who remove quite a bit of material and human waste from our communities.

I thought how this show would be even better if they could juxtapose the profiled business with a worker co-operative. Or instead of revealing Larry’s epiphany, they could have created a panel of front-line workers from Waste Management to watch the show and develop a list of ways for the company to change.

Other little things that I noticed was the fear on the face of the middle-managers when they had to respond to Larry’s request. I wonder if that fear even registers with him? Maybe he doesn’t even see it because it is the normal reaction. I certainly know what would happen in a worker co-op if the GM or anyone presented demands disguised as  requests. The person would probably unpack the request–how are we going to pay for it? is this really going to accomplish what the GM wants? does this fit in with the goals and values of the organization?

I don’t know if the schtick of the show will keep my interest but it certainly was enjoyable to see the structural failure of profit-based policy get its comeuppance.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to Undercover Boss–A lesson in the Co-operative Difference

  1. Bernard says:

    John, I don’t think that the point isn’t to say anything meaningful. The goal is to show us that bosses are human after all. What c**p! Of course, “reading” this program for the psycho-social manifestations of hierarchy may be an interesting pursuit. If you can stomach the program more than 5 min.

  2. Too true. . . and the Labor Notes post makes some great comments. I should have waited a few more days before posting the original. . .

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