Undercover Boss is an example of executive alienation

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”).

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, communication, consultation, executives, Leadership, OHS, safety, UncategorizedTags , , , ,

6 thoughts on “Undercover Boss is an example of executive alienation”

  1. After reading what Rosemary from Work Injured Resource Connection had to say, then reading Bob Ansett, I can only ask why is it that none of the so-called industry leaders have taken up the offer that Rosemary has put forward.
    What is it that they are so afraid of hearing, or is it that if they hear what is wrong and how they have contributed to the wrongness that they will have to take steps to remedy the situation?

    I have tried to talk with the system providers, only to be talked over and spoken down to and even totally ignored even though I was sitting in the same room.
    If anyone can get the WorkCover system to listen to the voices of the injured workers it will be Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson.
    If Keith Brown was willing to listen and work with Rosemary, then why is it that other industry leaders are so blind and so ignorant to not want to learn.
    Or as I said is it that once they know the pain and the dispair they bring, that they could no longer impact in such a negative manner and the company they work for would suffer in income generated!!!!!

    1. Jennifer, there are executives who interact with shopfloor workers successfully. I would have to state that from my own experience, Janet Holmes a Court is one. I have met her and workers she has talked with on site. She takes worker concerns very seriously and, I believe, the involvement of a Board member in incident investigations and OHS meetings improves the safety operations of the middle managers.

      Some executives seem to operate similarly to politicians. In my opinion the best politicians are those who have come to the \”profession\” from a worker, community or shopfloor background and not those who structured their education towards a career in politics. The latter struggle to engage with the members of their electorates whereas the former understand the community needs and problems.

      Of course, it is unfair to generalise.

  2. Bob Ansett has clarified some points in the above article:

    “Hi Kevin,

    You are absolutely right, not only did our executives have to work one day a month behind the rental counter, but all department heads as well. Not only was this program designed to keep us in touch with our customers but also to witness first hand systems and processes, introduced by executives, at work in the market place. Sometimes we discovered impediments with systems that impacted on productivity or inconvenienced customers and were able to modify before too much damage was done.

    Further by talking directly with customers and those who served them we were able to introduce new products and services, giving us a competitive advantage over competitors. In fact it lead to another Budget policy of introducing an innovation every six months to keep us ahead of the pack.”

  3. Many years back when Keith Brown was the CEO of SA WorkCover and Work Injured Resource Connection had a small office in a basement a very interesting thing happened.
    After a conversation between Keith Brown and myself about many things (including me telling him that he had no idea as to what life for injured workers was like) I put the offer to Keith Brown to come down and spend some time with the injured workers, and take some phone calls.
    A few days later without any announcement, Keith Brown walked in, he was dressed in jeans and t/shirt, he introduced himself to the injured workers who were there as Keith, he made no mention of who he was, he simply said he wanted to learn about my work.
    After a while he said he was going to have a cup of coffee, one of the injured workers said to him that as he was going to boil the kettle, he had better ask me if I wanted a cup of tea as well (it was standard practice to ask who else wanted a tea or coffee)
    Keith then sat in the office with me, he answered the phone calls as they came in, he helped resolve a few issues, and made appointments for injured workers to see me -asking politely if it were permissible for him to also sit in on those meetings as he was learning my work-

    Over many months Keith brown would just turn up when he had time, but he went further, he made sure that as many of the managers from within WorkCover Corporation also spent some time working in the basement with myself and the injured workers.

    Sadly the building the office was in was sold and Work Injured Resource Connection had to move out.
    Keith Brown also stepped down from the position of WorkCover CEO.

    However I have tried many times since then to have various WorkCover and claims agent management people come to my office and to take the calls from injured workers.
    Always the offer is refused.
    I have also offered various section of the workers compensation industry to run Forums for injured workers to come and tell me what it is that is making their lives so hard to cope with.
    Again the offer has been turned down.

    It seems that the only person who wanted to know how to not just improve the lives of injured workers but also the workers compensation system is no longer working within the system.

    Over the years I have attended many industry conferences and seminars and each time I explain who I am and what I do, I also add the offer of my office and phone line or to run a public Forum for injured workers so as the industry leaders can hear for themselves, they all say thanks but no thanks.

    It is as if finding out that what I say about the treatment of injured workers does not fit into the framework of the industry builders.

    Pity really, a lot of good things came out of the time that Keith Brown spent making tea, sweeping floors and emptying the rubbish bins whilst talking to injured workers and finding out how to ease the burden called WorkCover.

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