Undercover Boss

539w Back before Michael Moore was crazy, he had a great television show, which highlighted the separation of upper management of companies from the ground level workers. There was one memorable scene when he stood outside of IBM with a megaphone and a big floppy disk in his hand and demanded that the CEO format the disk.

"Format the disk! Format the disk!"

Last night after the Superbowl, Steve put the leftover chili in the fridge, and I snuggled on the sofa reading tweets on my iPhone and watched a new show, Undercover Boss.

Undercover Boss is a new reality show that follows around CEOs of companies as they go undercover and do the work of the line workers in their own companies. On the first episode, the CEO of Waste Management Company vacuumed out porta-potties, sorted trash on conveyor belts, picked up blowing pieces of litter on a hill, and helped out in a small office. He worked with remarkably cheerful, able employees who struggled to keep to quotas. They did backbreaking work with little complaint.

At the end, he reveals himself as the CEO to the astonished workers and plays fairy godmother by giving raises and changing unfair policies. He realizes that some of the rules that he set in place were being cruelly implemented. Other policies needed to be put in place as he learns from a female worker who had to pee in a can during her route in order to make her daily quota of trash pickup.

While these were certainly positive developments, the show was manipulative. There was too much advertisement for the company. The boss was on his best behavior and is portrayed as a savior to the working man. The line-workers were very carefully chosen for the show. They found the one person in the world who was able to vacuum out poop from the porta-potties with good humor and zeal. This was very scripted reality TV.

The best moments of the show were the glimpses we caught of the daily lives of these garbage workers. They were spied on by low level management on security cameras. They had work quotas. Their jobs involved intense physical labor; even those with medical conditions did hard work. It's was very Barbara Ehrenreich. Most of my friends have never had jobs that involved punching clocks or meeting quotas or dealing with bodily waste. It's very important that we understand these jobs better.

Undercover Boss is a sanitized Michael Moore. The themes are hero line workers and a well-meaning, but unaware CEO. When the CEO learns of errors in his company, he heroically makes changes. The only bad guys are low level management, but they get very little camera time.

The bigger problems go unsaid. For example, there is no mention of the salary of the CEO in relation to the poop-vacuumer. At the end of the show, I was hoping that the CEO would give himself a pay cut and distribute the savings to his workers. That didn't happen.

There is also no mention of how a guy is able to take charge of a company without having an inkling of knowledge about what his staff does. Perhaps before that MBA takes over spreadsheet making for a company, he should actually do some of the work himself. Maybe that would be a good thing.

Undercover Boss is sentimental and populist, but without asking the real tough questions about capitalism and our class-based world.

36 thoughts on “Undercover Boss

  1. Is Michael Moore Crazy these days? If so, how? I don’t think I’ve watched anything by him for years, but more because I didn’t think I’d learn anything or be amused than for any more substantive reason.
    Most of my friends have never had jobs that involved punching clocks or meeting quotas or dealing with bodily waste.
    Did they not have jobs in high-school? Or were they too high-class for such jobs even then? Most people I knew who worked in high-school did things a lot like what I did- work fast-food, do a lot of different jobs in a grocery store, etc. I tried to stay away from bodily waste, though I did sometimes have to clean bathrooms or unpleasant messes people made.

  2. Most of my non-journalism and academic work has been in retail, but I did work as a dishwasher at a restaurant for a while. Coming home every night a steamy mess.
    I haven’t watched any Michael Moore for quite a while as well, but mainly because I thought there was a real drop-off in quality. Roger & Me remains an essential work, though.

  3. The themes are hero line workers and a well-meaning, but unaware CEO. . . The bigger problems go unsaid. For example, there is no mention of the salary of the CEO in relation to the poop-vacuumer.
    I’m pretty sure this was the plot of Henry V, except with soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt instead of poop suckers.

  4. Both Steve and I worked in the dishroom in our college cafeterias. We were just telling our kids about how much fun and dirty and stinky it was. Of course, it was just a part time job and not real life. I remember that chicken wing night was particularly gross.

  5. I wanted to watch that show. My sister-in-law was a sales person for WM for years. She talked about drug testing and quotas for the drivers. At first, she was sympathetic to the drivers, but the further up the chain she moved, the less sympathetic she became. It was interesting to see.
    I have worked some really crappy jobs. Telephone sales, which I eventually liked and got moved up to management, but still, quotas! I worked in a donut shop, filling donuts with cream and jelly and dealing with sexist customers. I waited tables–hard work and again, sexist customers. I worked numerous jobs in a local bank–counting money, filing loan papers and checks, typing, answering phones–and had a very strict lunch and bathroom schedule there. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I had a job that didn’t involve grunt work/manual labor. I interned at a magazine, but waiting tables paid more, so I did that too.
    The difference in pay between a CEO and a line worker has gotten much worse over the years. It’s too bad they didn’t address the financial gap as well as the knowledge gap.

  6. Aside from real jobs (defined as jobs that will pop if you type my name into Google), I have worked in a McDonald’s, worked building farm buildings, worked framing houses, packed catalog orders in a warehouse, loaded trucks in a warehouse for an extreme-discount retailer, and waited tables at a red checker-table cloth Italian place. The building ones were the best, except for the nagging fear of falling from high places. I’d drop 20 pounds and get big arms. The catalog warehouse was the worst because you had to stand nearly still and that killed my back.

  7. I had the inevitable fast food job back when I was in high school in the mid 80s. And it was common back then. But these days, at least in my office, it’s not uncommon to encounter a 20-something who has never ever held an hourly job. Some of these people are putting in their first full day at work at 25 or 26, after completing graduate school.
    It’s a total pain to manage such people; they need to be told to remove their hats in the office, for example. This whole concept of getting in trouble when you show up late is a big wake-up call to them. I should not have to be teaching these lessons.
    OTOH, one thing I remember vividly from my fast food days is that my manager was dealing drugs from his office back behind the grill. I’m not sure I would want my kid going into that kind of environment. But absolutely nothing inspires a person to stick with college quite like working a blue collar job.

  8. My understanding is that colleges–remember, these institutions are not run by Sarah Palin fans–have become disdainful of applicants who spend their summers working in menial jobs rather than going to enrichment programs in Marseilles or whatever. Thus, middle and upper middle class parents increasingly do not force their children to get menial jobs. (I never dealt with human waste, but I have certainly dealt with food waste and equine waste.) I think it’s regrettable that colleges don’t value working-class summer jobs, but there it is.

  9. “But absolutely nothing inspires a person to stick with college quite like working a blue collar job.”
    The place where my dad was an engineer had a summer-jobs program for employees’ children who were in college. The guys, who were probably more in danger of not finishing, mostly got tasked with things like mowing lawns or assisting cleanup near the sulfur units.
    I’ve been lucky enough to avoid food-service jobs, but did work at places where there was a definite risk of falling out of a pipe rack or conceivably off of a tower. There were also people whose title was Fire Watch, for good reason. Good times!

  10. There were also people whose title was Fire Watch, for good reason.
    The one time I have ever been in a situation where a fire extinguisher was needed, it didn’t work. We’d started a hay bale on fire with sparks from a cut-off saw. The boss saw the flames and ran over with a fire extinguisher. He pulled the trigger and it went ‘poof’ and emptied in about half a second. We used shovels to get the fire out.

  11. There were also people whose title was Fire Watch, for good reason. Good times!
    I had that job! Eight weeks after my Freshman Year at college at Sparrows Point Naval Ship Yard. We were repairing a dry dock. It was horrible.

  12. It was probably also my only job that included both “types” of workers — college kids looking for extra money, and “grown ups” who were using the paycheck to support their families.
    I’ve had other crappy jobs, too, but they were all staffed by “people like me.”

  13. Dealing with both “types” of workers, as Ragtime notes, is one of the biggest things I learned in my fast food days. A real eye-opener and very good for me, as I was essentially a pretty sheltered kid.

  14. I’ve never had a real job (unless a paper route counts?). My husband has never had a real job, either. And, we’re not younger than the rest of the commenter.
    I probably would be difficult to manage, and there are certainly skills I lack because I’ve never waited tables or worked behind a lunch counter (jobs I’d be terrible at). My friends who’ve done them, though, say that I do not appear to be the kind of jerk they often thought people like me were.
    I don’t see suggesting that my kids to get a menial job. I hope that we’ll teach them to be responsible workers and responsible people, nevertheless.
    And, if you’re playing the high stakes college game — it’s not participating in “enrichment” programs in Marseilles that the schools value. It’s the results of that participation (i.e. you write a book, or take fabulous photographs). I think parents who imagine that sending their kids on frou frou vacations are going to help them get into colleges are mistaken. Working in a menial job and writing a book about it would work — the problem is that working those jobs sucks the energy out of you and leaves little time to accomplish other things (including getting those perfect SAT scores, finishing the research project, and performing in the violin competition).

  15. Here’s my partial list: shoveling around liquid manure, holding tails of about-to-be-castrated young bull calves, working a head gate on a corral, tossing and stacking 50-pound bales of hay, helping put on a shake roof, herding cattle around on foot on miserable rainy days and folding thousands of t-shirts over several summers, whacking down thistles, cutting blackberry bushes (an invasive and very prickly species). I’ve never done food service.

  16. Through later high school and college, I was a lifeguard–a minimum wage job that carries a lot of responsibility, depending on the venue. It also involves a surprising amount of human waste and other bodily fluids. For one thing, you have to clean the women’s and men’s bathrooms; also, there’s a fair amount of blood, usually from some kid doing something you’ve told him 20 times not to do. Inevitably, a couple times a season, a toddler’s poop would escape from his or her bathing suit and be floating around the pool, and we’d have to fish that out. It’s always nice to have an oooohing audience of kids and teenagers for that job. Then there are the drowned animal corpses you’ve got to remove every morning. But it’s true these activities didn’t take up the bulk of the day.

  17. Yes, I also enjoy watching the life guards pull out a floater from the pool. It never gets old.
    I fully expect my kids to do menial labor. How else will they get spending money? We’re not saving any college money for them, so they’re certainly going to be doing some work-study stuff in college.
    I’ve been thinking about taking a job at a garden nursery, because I love planting things and I can do it part-time. It would involve dealing with poop, but it would be called manure. Manure is a much better word.

  18. That’s cool, Laura. Working at a garden nursery would be Melissa’s second or third choice for a part-time job when our last goes to pre-school and kindergarten. Her first choices would be at a library or bookstore, but the former is probably more likely.

  19. “We’re not saving any college money for them, so they’re certainly going to be doing some work-study stuff in college.”
    Really? I think you’ve got a real conversation-starter there if you turned that into a whole post.
    I’m theoretically in favor of college savings (at least for families that won’t qualify for need-based aid). However, since we haven’t yet maxed out retirement or finished saving our house downpayment, in actual practice we haven’t started saving for college (not counting a US savings bond for $100 or $200 that we got right after C was born that is somewhere in our papers). There is the question of how the tuition benefit for faculty children will fit into our plans. The tuition benefit is exactly the sort of thing that might unexpectedly go *poof*, so I’m trying not to count on that. UT costs $20k+ per year right now (tuition and living expenses), so I would expect the kids to earn about half of that over the summer–there’s always summer work in the family businesses. (I personally wasn’t a huge success as a work-study student, so I wouldn’t expect my kids to do what I couldn’t do, although I think doing clerical work at their college department would be very educational.) I suppose summer jobs interfere with being able to do unpaid internships, but I suspect a lot fewer parents are going to want to foot the bill for that sort of thing from here on out as retirement looms.
    My husband has never had a “real” job and it hasn’t hurt him a bit. However, there are a number of young relatives that in retrospect I think would have been better off if they had worked summers.

  20. UT costs $20k+ per year right now (tuition and living expenses), so I would expect the kids to earn about half of that over the summer
    Really? Maybe inflation is more likely than I’d expect, but $10K over the summer for a college student seems like a lot. When I was in law school the better law summer jobs might pay $20K, but that was the same salary as a starting big-firm law associate. Even a summer teaching spot for a grad student (a more than full-time job) only pays about $5K at Penn, and less elsewhere. It seems an unreasonably high amount to expect someone to make on a summer job in college unless it’s a sham job where they’re not really being paid for their work or it’s quite exceptional.

  21. “[I]t’s not participating in “enrichment” programs in Marseilles that the schools value. It’s the results of that participation (i.e. you write a book, or take fabulous photographs).”
    I agree completely, which is why the well-designed programs will set aside several afternoons for the kids to produce essays about “what it all means.” Also a day of “social service” with the French equivalent of Habitat for Humanity, or some such. None of which will interest the local motel owner who just wants the beds changed every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
    As I say, I’m not sure why colleges have established admissions criteria that so blatantly favor the children of the upper middle class. I am forced to conclude that the (re)production of another generation of limousine liberals is in fact the goal, though I think that what is actually produced in the students is mostly cynical gamesmanship.

  22. Based on the letter the Social Security people send, I used to make about $10k a year working retail for my parents ($10 an hour plus bonuses on high-volume days) in the 90s. That was nearly all summer, but I probably also got in some hours over Christmas break. I was a ferocious saleswoman back in the day, but in July and August we’d do almost nothing but sell, sell, sell. We’d open at 8AM and close at 10PM, as long as there was traffic on the road, every single day. I think the non-family member who worked at the store at the time made the same hourly rate, but it was tourism and very seasonal. You make all your money in two months. Of course, the dot com era was also a somewhat special situation, with people spending money they didn’t have on stuff they didn’t need. People would come in and go into a sort of feeding frenzy, and I’d wind up ringing up a dozen t-shirts at a time. Nobody needs that many t-shirts! I wasn’t around for it, but the dot com crash was a very sobering period. We’d all gotten used to the idea that business would go up and up every year because we were so gosh darn brilliant, and it was painful but very educational to learn that 1) it was the economy, not us and 2) you can’t eat t-shirts if your inventory is too ambitious 3) loans aren’t free money.

  23. The family tourist businesses are run much more conservatively these days. It’s early days right now (they’re 7 and 4), but I would like to send my kids to work there in the summer in their teens, flipping burgers, selling t-shirts, and doing river guiding.

  24. I didn’t have these kinds of jobs — in part because my parents wanted me to focus on school and extra-curriculars, but also because in NYC there are enough grown-ups who want those kinds of jobs that they’re not really available for teenagers/college students. (I remember spending lots of time signing up with temp agencies and never getting a single assignment.)
    I babysat, and I was a camp counselor, both of which involved their share of bodily fluids. And after I zeroed out with the temp agencies, someone my parents knew from synagogue hired me to work in her doctor’s office — which was some answering phones, a lot of filing, and a lot of tedious data entry.

  25. “I am forced to conclude that the (re)production of another generation of limousine liberals is in fact the goal, though I think that what is actually produced in the students is mostly cynical gamesmanship.”
    I don’t think that producing another generation of LL’s is their goal, but that they are thwarted by the gamesmanship of the upper middle class (and aspirational classes — note that this CV prepping is significant among well-educated immigrants who are not a part of the traditional American middle class). They want to see evidence of the introspection, ambition, love of learning, dedication, rules-exploiting/abiding that results in significant intellectual output (remember, that’s what colleges are for). And, though changing sheets every day showcases certain abilities (and ones that tend to be undervalued), they don’t show the introspective intellect the high-stakes colleges are looking.
    You know that Harvard dreams of the working class kid from Nebraska who grew up in foster homes and cleaned rooms at the local motel. They just want the kid to have also written the great American novel. A person with that opportunity might be able to manage by working part time, and spending the rest of their day on that novel (rather than having their parents pay for Marseilles trip in which they are afforded opportunities to introspect on their parents dime).

  26. y81, I do admissions interview for my Ivy League alma mater, and I’m certain that all the local interviewers value experience in a “real” job far more than the wannabe Grand Tour (or poverty tourism, or “eco-challenges”, or…). In fact, on the mailing list for all local the interviewers we have a name for them that is so extremely derogatory that I am too embarrassed to repeat it here.

  27. “In fact, on the mailing list for all local the interviewers we have a name for them that is so extremely derogatory that I am too embarrassed to repeat it here.”
    Siobhan, you’re absolutely killing me with curiosity.

  28. Amy P, I think your numbers are partially off because you made $10 an hour– I worked retail in the mid 1990s and never made above minimum wage, much less bonuses. That includes the Disney Store on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for example, plus Bath & Body Works and a crappy record store. I’ve also done several tours of restaurant work, and worked through all my college years even though I was there on full academic scholarship– I bought my own books and made my own spending money. I fully intend to have my own kids do similar work, and like Laura, am prioritizing retirement savings over college savings.

  29. You know that Harvard dreams of the working class kid from Nebraska who grew up in foster homes and cleaned rooms at the local motel. They just want the kid to have also written the great American novel.
    Now, I’m sure that Harvard has higher standards for admission than does Penn, but _how_ much higher I’m not sure. But I’ll say, after having spent a lot of time teaching Penn undergrads, that this is so far away from what one must do to get into Penn that it’s not even an exaggeration.

  30. Jackie,
    I believe I was also getting time-and-a-half for overtime. That was on the generous side, but it’s hard to get good help, especially just for a few months a year and 30 minutes away from the closest real grocery store.

  31. >>There were also people whose title was Fire Watch,
    >>for good reason. Good times!
    >I had that job! Eight weeks after my Freshman Year
    >at college at Sparrows Point Naval Ship Yard. We
    >were repairing a dry dock. It was horrible.
    Yeah, Fire Watch was a terrible job. Not actually hard just amazingly dull. If you were really luck, you got to turn the knob on the welding machine up or down a notch.

  32. You know that Harvard dreams of the working class kid from Nebraska who grew up in foster homes and cleaned rooms at the local motel.
    The one with the middle class parents, not so much.

  33. Now that I think of it, in my experience college students expect at least $10 an hour for babysitting. I will try to remember that for when the kids go to college.

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