Undercover Boss: Oh to be a Fly on the Wall at Your Business

Posting by Joel C. Susco, CPA, Principal

Have you ever heard someone say, “I would love to be a fly on the wall and just see what goes on at my business while I am not there?”  I am certain many business owners feel that way.  They would like to know just how their employees truly feel and act, while the boss is away.  I recently watched a new reality series called “Undercover Boss,” and thought this was a great way for the owner of a business to work, incognito shoulder-to-shoulder with his or her employees to see what goes on and what employees have to say about their business. What better way to obtain honest, nothing held back, input from those that you trust with your business.  This could possibly be a double-edged sword, however, as you may found out some things about your business that you wish you never had.

The Undercover Premise – How the Boss Blends In

“Undercover Boss” is a reality series that follows high ranking corporate executives as they slip anonymously into their own company as an entry-level employee. Each week, a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office, alter their appearance and assume an alias, for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their corporation. This fictitious employee spends about a week working in various areas of the business and sometimes at different locations.  While working alongside their employees, they will learn about themselves, the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems are within their organization, the perception of their company and discover the unsung champions of their work force.  In certain cases, hilarity often ensues as the boss demonstrates first-day mistakes at the tasks that his employees typically handle perfectly, without a thought. Many times the undercover boss will talk with each employee to learn more about the employee, their personal situation and their perception of the job. In the episode I watched, the boss was incredibly touched by the challenges faced by his working class employees, as some had even revealed difficult life circumstances.  The boss learned some valuable and emotional lessons about their employees.  He observed how his employees treated his business as their own.

Even the Boss Has Something to Learn

At the end of his week undercover, the boss returns to his windowed corner office and requests a meeting at corporate headquarters with the employees he worked among. In anticipation of “meeting the boss,” the employees talk about being nervous and not knowing what to expect.   They sit in an office, come face-to-face with that “entry level employee” with whom they worked weeks ago, who is now well dressed, cleanly shaved and is greeting them warmly. The boss reveals his true identity to them, and tells them what he has learned. In some cases, he presents the employees with varying rewards such as job promotions, vacations, or some other assistance tailored to the individual’s personal situation. In other cases he tells employees why the actions that he observed are unacceptable. Those employees he has helped reveal to the camera tremendous, often tearful gratitude for the care expressed by the company’s executive.
At the end of the day we could all use honest feedback on how to make our business better.  Whether it is through “Undercover Boss” or a candid decision with those who help our business grow, we could all learn something.  But learning the truth is not for the faint of heart; unless you are open to change and an objective viewpoint, this type of undercover operation could lead to disaster.  Have you learned anything important about your company inadvertently from the inside?  If so, share how you used this accidental information for the improvement of your business.

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