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August 2, 2014

'Undercover Boss' Needs to Be Clear on Who the Boss Really Is

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 17th 2011 8:00AM
The CEO of United Van Lines on CBS' 'Undercover Boss''Undercover Boss' is one of those reality shows that tries very, very hard not to let its seams show. In the two seasons it's been on CBS, it has taken pains to make sure that the CEO, mayor, executive or owner that dons the wig and glasses and goes undercover doing front-line jobs at his or her company isn't found out, despite the show's popularity. There's elaborate costumes, and a whole other film crew that shoots footage that never gets aired, just to throw people off the trail.

But one of the things they've been inconsistent with is identifying if the boss that's going undercover is actually someone who can actually perform boss-like tasks such as hiring, firing, and promoting people.

According to the Wall Street Journal, United Van Lines had to intervene after last Sunday's episode raised complaints that CEO Rich McClure gave promotions and training to the men he (and his wife, who was also undercover) worked with, but not the woman who was depicted on the show calling the company a "boy's club,"

"United is represented across the country by 400 independent and operated agencies," said a United spokesman. "So they're not employees. He is not really their boss."

If you've ever had one of the major moving companies truck your stuff from place to place, you know that all of them use local companies that are franchisees; the local moving company's name is prominently displayed on the trucks and packing material, right along with the national company's name. So the United Van Lines spokesman wasn't exactly spilling a trade secret.

But, according to the WSJ, CBS showed McClure negotiating a raise with one male employee, while setting up training for another. The woman who called the company a "all-boys club" didn't go away empty-handed; she got money for her daughter's wedding and a free trip to Las Vegas. But she didn't get a chance to advance in a company she's worked at for 28 years.

United needed to clarify that McClure doesn't have the power to promote, give raises, or send any employees of their local agents to training; they claim that the producers edited the show to make it look that way, but the reality differed than what was on screen. CBS, for its part, told WSJ that they stand by the broadcast.

This isn't the first time that 'Undercover Boss' has had a boss from a franchised company check out what's going on at his franchisees. Last season, the CEO 7-11 worked at a few of the stores and on a delivery route. Earlier this season, an executive for Subway went undercover, and the CEO of Johnny Rockets worked in a number of restaurants -- almost getting made in one of them.

In the case of the 7-11 and Subway episodes, the role of the executive as it relates to the franchisees was pretty clear; he helped the truck driver by awarding him a franchise, and was able to help out the others he worked with with various awards and grants, but no promotions or raises were in the offing. The distinction was less clear for the Johnny Rockets episode, but that could have been because some of the restaurants the CEO worked might have been company-owned and some were franchisees.

There was absolutely no reason for CBS and Studio Lambert, who produces the show, to not make clear the fact that McClure had no direct control over the United Van Lines employees he worked with. Might it have killed some of the drama? Maybe. But the point of the show is that companies of all shapes, sizes and types -- and even some entities that aren't companies, as the city of Cincinnati found out -- all have inefficiencies and bureaucracies that can only be seen on the front lines and not in the executive suite.

Like I said at the top of this post, 'Undercover Boss' has to perform some reality TV sleight-of-hand in order to get viewers -- and the workers -- to buy in. Obscuring what the role of a company's CEO really is will only make that buy-in harder to get in the future.

Tell us: Should CBS have made sure that the duties of the United Van Lines CEO were depicted correctly? Do you believe CBS or United in this dispute?

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