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My wife, Sally, and I just had hardwood floors installed in our home, finally replacing carpeting that looked old and outdated when we moved in nine years ago.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.

Undercover Boss goes to White Castle

The latest episode of Undercover Boss features David Rife, one of the owners of White Castle, going undercover in the company's operations to view it from a fresh perspective. As always, there were some fantastic lessons for all of us and a few unbelievable moments. I don't want to spoil anything, so use the link below to watch the show first if you haven't already.

Watch the show here

"Do they look like they're happy?"

That's a quote from Geenie, a General Manager at one of White Castle's new stores. She says this to her new employee (David, the Undercover Boss) while complaining about corporate's practice of bringing in too many workers and managers to help with a new store opening. She's referring to her unhappy employees.

This is awesome on many levels. Geenie is the boss, yet she's somehow found a way to blame her employees' unhappiness on "corporate". She makes this complaint to a new employee, perhaps as part of the "soul and spirit crushing" initiative she's included in new employee orientation.  Best of all, those cameras aren't hidden. Geenie makes her complaint knowing full well she's being filmed. Awesome.

My take? We don't always like the direction from corporate, but it's not the boss's role to join the employees in being disgruntled. A good boss can complain up, but he or she had better put on a good face for the employees and help them accept whatever direction they must head.

Blame the trainer, not the trainee.

In another segment, David struggles to learn how to feed a box load of buns into a packaging machine. Time after time, he gets the buns misaligned and the machine destroys them. By the end of his shift he had destroyed 4800 buns.

The highlight was when David's trainer, Steve, blamed David. Uh, what about your lousy training, Steve? Steve knew how to correctly feed the buns into the packager, but he couldn't explain it clearly to his trainee. He also lacked the patience and ability to coach David through his errors. On-the-job training is often referred to as "showing them the ropes", but it takes some skill and preparation to avoid rope burn! The worst mistake a trainer can make is blaming a trainee who hasn't received any real instruction.

"We all need to try to be more like Joe."

Undercover Boss always features an inspirational story or two. My favorite in this episode was Joe. He showed David how to work the drive-thru window at a White Castle store. Unlike Steve the bun packager, Joe was patient and calm and showed David how to work the window efficiently. David marveled at Joe's enthusiasm and willingness to connect with his customers. It's great to see the business owner connecting with those employees that really are the heart and soul of the business.

Lessons from Undercover Boss: A good employee is golden

The new CBS show, Undercover Boss, continues to provide great insight into American corporations and lots of blog fodder. In the show, the chief executive of a major corporation goes undercover and tries out five frontline positions within his company. (There hasn't yet been a female executive.) The latest episode features Joe DePinto, CEO and President of 7-Eleven. Joe comes off as the least clueless executive so far, but there are still some gems in this show that are great lessons for any business person.
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Human interaction hurts service scores in 2009 Q4 ACSI report

The 2009 4th Quarter American Customer Satisfaction Index scores were released today and the big winners were internet retailers that required very little, if any, interaction with a human being. (Ouch!) The average score for online retailers was 83% compared to a 75% average customer satisfaction rating for 'Big Box' discount retailers and department stores. Clearly, U.S. companies as a whole are not doing a good job of person to person customer service.

Internet retailers do well

Source: American Customer Satisfaction Index

Netflix, the online video rental company, had the highest score among retailers included in the report with an 87% customer satisfaction rating.  I've been a loyal Netflix customer for several years and would rate their 'service' very highly, but I don't think I've ever interacted with a single Netflix employee. The many attributes I like include their convenient and speedy service, large library of video titles, and on-demand viewing capability.


Big box stores - not so much...

Source: American Customer Satisfaction Index

I have consistently been frustrated by poor service when I've tried to shop at many large retailers like Macy's. They have many opportunities to assist customers and increase sales, but most employees I encounter are content with ringing up purchases and handling stock. Of course, you can always count on someone at Macy's asking if you'd like to open up a Macy's card. They do do that.

What's the fix?

If the new CBS show, Undercover Boss is any indicator, corporate executives need to get out of their offices and manage from ground level. I suppose you can lead from behind a desk when all your service is delivered online, but you can't be completely hands-off with a retail store. Employees need training, coaching, and motivation. They also need to be held accountable. And, you need to make sure you are hiring the right employees in the first place. None of this can be managed via email or through a spreadsheet.

Undercover Boss is cringe-worthy (and I like it!)

CBS has a new reality show called Undercover Boss, where the head of a major corporation goes undercover as a frontline employee to get a ground-level view of the organization.  If the first episode is any indication, the executives featured in this show will be incredibly detached from their organizations, use their undercover stint as an excuse to create chaos, and highlight enough dirty laundry on national television to make you cringe.  And, because it’s television, we’re sure to see a lot of happy endings.

Spoiler alert – watch the first episode before reading further if you don’t want anything revealed before you’ve seen it.



Episode 1: Waste Management's Larry O’Donnell
Waste Management’s President and COO, Larry O’Donnell, is the featured executive in episode one.  He tries out five different frontline jobs and the employees assigned to show him the ropes apparently have no idea he’s really an executive with the company.  I admire him for putting himself out there and letting a television show get such an intimate look at his organization.  He seems to have his heart in the right place and wants to do right for his employees, but his ego and apparent detachment from reality are a bit stunning.

Oh so detached
At the beginning of the program, Larry is enthusiastic about the opportunity to visit some of Waste Management’s operations.  He tells the audience, “I may be able to revolutionize some of our processes.”  Attention executives: You don’t need to be on a reality show to go visit your operations and see what’s really happening!  Go ahead and spend some time out in the field.  Feel free to revolutionize processes that need revolutionizing even before the cameras start rolling.

The good news is Larry had his eyes opened by what he saw throughout the show.  It was particularly interesting to see his reaction to the human toll of the cost cutting measures he had spearheaded at Waste Management.  Like many executives, Larry has a super hero alter-ego.  When he saw how budget cuts were affecting real people, he undoubtedly said to himself, “This looks like a job for Captain Meddler!”

Captain Meddler
Ugh, Larry.  Ugh.

Jeff Richardson manages one of the locations where Larry goes undercover.  He has made the best of Larry’s cost-cutting measures and runs an efficient operation with a motivated team.  One of Jeff’s employees, Jaclyn, appears to be an incredibly committed employee who is capably handling multiple responsibilities due to the cut-backs.  Jeff should be praised for keeping his team motivated through lean times.

Enter Captain Meddler.  Larry spends a day with Jaclyn and is taken aback by her work ethic and dedication.  He’s amazed when she invites him to have dinner with her family, and is surprised to learn that Jaclyn is supporting her extended family and has trouble making ends meet on her salary.  The next day, Larry meets with Jeff and tells him he’d like to see Jaclyn get promoted and make more money.

On one hand, it’s great to see the big boss recognize an employee’s contributions and want to reward her for them.  It certainly seems well-deserved on Jaclyn’s part.  On the other hand, you never see Larry give Jeff any credit for making the most out of the meager resources that Larry himself had provided.  It’s great that Larry has a new perspective once he’s glimpsed the people behind the numbers, but it’s ridiculous to see him march in to Jeff’s operations and try to come off as some sort of savior.

It’s a bit sad that it’s not an uncommon tale in corporate America.  The middle manager gets squeezed.

Cringe TV
There were some outstanding moments in this show that I hope is a sign of more things to come.  My top three:

3. The boss can’t cut it.
One of the jobs Larry tries out is picking up trash.  At the start of the day, Larry asks his supervisor, Walter, for some tips.  Walter’s response was pure gold: “What kind of technique do you want?  You’re just picking up paper!”  By the end of the day, Walter informs Larry that he’s just not cut out for picking up trash.

2. Pay docking scheme.
On another job in a recycling center, Larry and his supervisor for the day are sitting in the lunch room when she suddenly jumps up and runs to the time clock.  She clocks in from lunch and then walks back to the lunch room and continues eating.  Apparently, the site manager has a scheme where he docks workers two minutes of pay for every minute they are late.  This whole scene is wrong on many levels, which is precisely why I like it.

1. The pee can.
The best of them all was Larry’s stint on a trash collection route.  Janice, the driver working with Larry, tells him she isn’t given the opportunity to take bathroom breaks along her route, so she keeps a coffee can in the truck.  She hands it to Larry and says, “That’s our little pee pot!”  Yup.  I'm so glad the editors and the lawyers let that gem through!

OK, so there's still a happy ending and Larry's definitely not an ogre.  By the end of the show, he tries to do right by his employees and tells the team he has a new perspective. I just hope the next episode is just as good!