Why the boss asks employees to do their dirty work

My wife, Sally, and I just had hardwood floors installed in our home, finally replacing carpeting that looked old and outdated when we moved in nine years ago. It looks beautiful and the workmanship is outstanding, but the job was not without adventure. Our installer ran out of materials - twice. Worse, our installer had to share the bad news with us personally rather than the owner of the company (who was our salesperson) picking up the phone to apologize and give us the update herself.

This situation raises an interesting question. Why are bosses and business owners so willing to put their employees in the line of fire rather than handling their own mess?

Social scientists at Carnegie Mellon University discovered a possible explanation. They conducted an experiment where participants were given $10 and instructed to share as much as they'd like with another participant. Next, they were asked to repeat the experiment, but this time they used an itermediary (i.e. 'employee') to share the money on their behalf. On average, participants shared $1 less when using an intermediary than when they shared the money directly. The implication is it is easier to do something unfavorable to another person if we do it through an employee.

(Ok, that was a very superficial summary. If you are a nerd like me, you can read the whole study here.)

The CBS show Undercover Boss is another great illustration of this phenomenon. In each episode, a senior executive goes 'undercover' to work frontline positions in his or her company. One episode featured the owner of a fulfillment company taking calls in a call center. He quickly realizes how these employees are put in impossible situations where they don't have the training or authority to provide appropriate solutions to customer problems. (See my previous post about the show.)

Other examples abound. How else could bank executives ask their employees to enforce unpopular fees in the name of profitability while giving themselves outsized bonuses? Why do we spend 10 minutes arguing with a frontline employee who says they are only following policy and then the supervisor overrides the policy to give us what we want immediately?

Has Undercover Boss jumped the shark already?

I regularly watch the CBS show, Undercover Boss, where top executives go 'undercover' in their own companies to find out what's really going on. Like many shows, there's a formula. Generally, a formulaic approach yields predictable results. If the formula yields predictable results, it better have good drama (see Law & Order). Undercover Boss has good drama, but it's more the daytime talkshow variety than the business variety. I think I'm losing interest.

Go ahead, watch the latest episode here first if you want.

Daytime talkshow drama

During the show, the undercover boss spends a day with five different employees. He inevitably discovers that several of them are facing quite a few obstacles and hardships in their personal lives. Later, the boss summons the employees to the corporate office, reveals he is the big cheese, and awards many of them fabulous cash and prizes to deal with their hardships. Just like any daytime talkshow host would.

This week, Rick Arquilla, President and COO of Roto Rooter met several employees who later received fabulous cash and prizes. One of them was Darrell, a technician who had recently returned to work after missing several months due to illness. Darrell's disability insurance claim was denied and he was now facing some financial hardships. During the 'reveal', Rick told Darrell that he had investigated the insurance claim and found out that a paperwork error had stopped Darrell's claim. Rick fixed the error and arranged for Darrell to receive all his disability payments. That's the kind of good a company can do when it cares about its employees.

But wait, there's more.

Rick also offered to buy Darrell a home gym, hire a nutritionist, and buy him food from a local health food store so he could improve his health. It was a great turn of events for Darrell, but absolutely unsustainable and meaningless for the rest of the company's thousands of employees. What about a wellness initiative that helps all employees get healthier while potentially reducing health insurance premiums over the long-term? How about working with the company's benefit's administrator to audit their process so other people don't get needlessly denied their disability claims?

Here are some of the other fabulous gifts and prizes from the show.

Candace received tuition for her special needs child to attend a private school. She's also getting $5,000 to apply towards her mortgage. Great move, but what about all the other employees with special needs children? What about all the other employees who could use $5,000 to apply towards their mortgage?

Chris is becoming a public speaker to share his struggles with addiction and help others. He has a great personal story, though I wonder how many other Roto Rooter employees have dealt with addiction issues and would like to get paid by the company to share their tale?

Henry is getting a 15 passenger van to help shuttle his son's basketball team to practices. What about all the other Roto Rooter employees who coach their kids' teams?

Dan is getting a garage so he and a few of his co-workers who are car enthusiasts can use it to work on cars. I'm at a loss for words on this one.

C'mon Rick - aren't you supposed to be a big picture guy? Well, we don't know if he is or not because we only see him lavishing Darrell and others with gifts. It's up to the show's editors to decide whether to share the rest of the story.

Undercover Boss highlights the need for passionate people

It's no secret that I really like the new CBS show, Undercover Boss. I'm mildly disappointed that it's been a few weeks since they featured any cringe-worthy moments, but there are still plenty of great lessons to be learned.

The latest episode featured Joel Manby, President and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment. His experience highlighted the importance of having passionate employees who truly care about the business, the people they work with, and they people they serve.

Watch the episode first if you don't want me to spoil the plot.

Hiring Passionate People

A lot of companies seem to have their recruiting priorities backwards. The first thing they look for is relevant experience. "Have you worked in similar, soul-crushing jobs before? Great! You can be mediocre here too."

Some companies dig deeper and look for relevant skills. "Yes, I see you have a long history of customer service jobs. However, at our company we like our customer service reps to be friendly. Have any of your customer service positions required you to be friendly and courteous when dealing with customers?" At first this sounds ridiculous, but we all know there are plenty of service jobs out that where just a little courtesy could vault you to 'employee of the month' status. 

Very few companies hire for passion. The five employees Joel Manby followed at Herschend Family Entertainment all seemed to love what they did. Yes, some of them faced their fair share of challenges, but they loved serving people and they loved the business. Here's my suggested priority order for recruiting:

  1. Passion. Find peole who will love your company and love their jobs.
  2. Skill. Find people who have the skills to do their jobs well.
  3. Experience. Experience is only good if you use it wisely. You could have 20 years of experience doing something, but that might just mean you've been doing it poorly for 20 years.

We use a very simply model to help visualize what you truly need in any employee. Check it out here.

Undercover Boss explores the dark underworld of fulfillment

This week's episode of Undercover Boss gives us a behind the scenes look at a call center and fulfillment operation when they follow Michael Rubin, CEO of GSI Commerce. GSI Commerce provides outsourced sales and fulfillment services for companies like the NFL. If you order a jersey from NFL.com, it's actually GSI Commerce that takes your order and ships the merchandise to you. Most of us have ordered something online, via a catalog, or through a 1-800 number, but few of us have given much thought about what it takes to get the order to you.
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This week's Undercover Boss seems to get it right

The television show Undercover Boss continues to yield great management lessons, but each episode is less and less cringe-worthy. I don't know if I should be happy or disappointed.

Last Sunday's episode featured Bill Carstanjen, COO of Churchill Downs, Inc., going undercover to get a glimpse of what's really happening on the front lines.  Bill seemed to get it right while sidestepping the sort of scandal shown in other episodes.  He found out his employees' jobs were really hard, but the employees he worked with were very passionate and dedicated. He was touched by their personal stories, but resisted the urge to meddle in his operations or burn one of the employees' managers on national television like other bosses have done on the show. Bill even provided a gem of a quote as the show was wrapping up:

  The most important things in life start with human interaction.

Unfortunately, the episode didn't have the kind of shocking (a.k.a. entertaining) moments I saw on other episodes. There weren't any openly disgruntled managers trying to lead the mutiny against corporate (see White Castle). I didn't see any corporate edicts being ignored (see 7-Eleven). No employee on the latest show used a coffee can for a restroom (see Waste Management). I know, 'yawn', right? Well, it was still an interesting show.

Watch Undercover Boss at Churchill Downs, Inc.