“Undercover Boss” has become a popular television program in many countries over the last few years. The format is fresh and the results revealing. The eyes of each boss are opened to the deficiencies of a business and to the value of the workforce. Each episode ends with the reward of acknowledgement to the workers and new wisdom to the boss.
But the show is also an indictment of the attitudes of, and the management training provided, to senior executives. Why were the employees not being valued by the executives already? How did the executives lose touch?
If business management, corporate structures, and management training was rooted in the reality of work rather than profit, a series like Undercover Boss would never have been possible.
The concept of an executive maintaining a perspective of frontline customer contact is not new. In the 1970s, Bob Ansett instigated a process where on a regular basis (weekly or monthly) senior executives staffed the customer desk at his Budget Rent-a-Car outlets. This was intended to keep the executives “grounded” in the needs of the customers. It was also an acknowledgement that executives can easily become out of touch.
Although Ansett’s approach was to link executives with clients, the same principal works with executives maintaining a contact with workers. In Undercover Boss, executives are disguised or work well away from their usual workplace but the principle is the same as Ansett’s – maintaining contact and reducing isolation.
Various OHS regulators have tried to encourage such activity as much as they can through the push (now, in some instances, a legislative requirement) to consult on workplace health and safety matters. This was intended to get people to talk about safety but the reality is that the talking rarely involved the senior levels of management.
WorkSafe Victoria answers the question “why consult?”:
“By drawing on employees’ knowledge and experience, better decisions can be made about health and safety – and that means fewer workplace injuries.
Through talking about safety, employers can become more aware of hazards in the workplace and employees can provide suggestions about how the work could be done safely.
Effective consultation can also lead to:
- more informed management decisions that take into account a wider range of ideas about health and safety issues in the workplace and how to fix them
- stronger commitment to decisions because everyone’s involved in reaching them
- a tried and tested way of dealing with health and safety problems
- more openness, respect and trust because employers and employees have a better understanding of each other’s points of view.
Consultation should not be seen as just a legal requirement, but as an essential part of managing health and safety at work.”
Senior executives seem to respond better to the same principles of consultation and personal engagement being served up under the heading of Leadership. But leadership as it is currently spruiked aims at making someone a paragon but workplace safety does not necessarily need a paragon or an exemplar. It simply needs workers and managers to do the right thing and to do this consistently.
Most exemplars, upon inspection or assessment, are well below perfection. The reality is always below the expectation but reality is what safety management requires. It is the reality that Ansett wanted his executives to experience. It is the reality that a disguised executive finds as a revelation in Undercover Boss. It seems the reality is not being taught in the executive business courses and is only, rarely, gained through experience (for experience read “mistakes”).