Undercover Boss has been a ratings winner for CBS ever since its debut in 2010. The show follows high-level executives – usually CEOs – as they don (hilariously bad) disguises and infiltrate their own businesses, working among their lowest-rung staff members.
This vantage point often provides a fresh perspective for the CEO, and by the time they reveal their true identity, they've seen their business – and the hardworking people who toil away for them – in a whole new light. Exemplary employees are rewarded and bad apples are booted off the payroll (or at the very least, reprimanded); the reoccurring narrative is both entertaining and personally gratifying.
Despite a winning formula and two Emmy awards, Undercover Boss has not been without criticism. Like many reality shows, critics have questioned what's real and what might be staged for dramatic purposes.
Also, do employees really fall for those over-the-top disguises? What about the massive, company-wide changes that are often promised at the end of each episode? Do they really happen, and, if so, do they result in lasting and beneficial change? Let's go undercover and find out.
One Boss Offered A Controversial Reward To An Employee
The big payoff at the end of each episode comes when the boss reveals their identity and showers praise and rewards on the good workers (as well as punishments or firings on the not-so-good ones).
Massive bonuses, offers to pay bills or tuition, and establishing crisis funds for employees have all come from CEOs' experiences on the show. But just as there are less-than-perfect workers, there are also less-than-perfect CEOs.
Take Doug Guller, the CEO of a Hooters-style restaurant called Bikinis. As part of his big end-of-show reveal, he offered one of his workers a boob job.
"If you can make it through six months and you're a rock star," he told the waitress, "I'm going to put you in touch with the best [breast augmentation surgeon] in town and we'll make this happen!"
Bosses Aren’t Always Into The Experience
Making yourself vulnerable and learning the truth about your company isn't an entertaining – or even comfortable – situation for every CEO. Steve Joyce, the head of Choice Hotels International, accused Undercover Boss producers of setting him up to look stupid and unfamiliar with the various responsibilities that come with the job.
"They deliberately sabotage you so you don't do well and you look stupid," Joyce told the Wall Street Journal.
Joyce also accused the show of exploiting his personal life. "They look for something personal to torture you with—for me, my mom had died from Parkinson's a few years before. And I hadn't really dealt with it," he said. "So every chance they got they brought that up."
There’s A Lawsuit Against One Of The CEOs
House-flipping mogul and seminar guru Armando Montelongo appeared on Undercover Boss, and the result was likely very different from what he was expecting.
After the episode aired, 164 former students filed a class-action lawsuit against Montelongo alleging his expensive seminars – which claimed to teach people how to make money flipping houses – were fraudulent.
Among the lawsuit's accusations was the charge that students paid upwards of $54,000 for "advanced programs," which were really just a scheme to buy even more products. Montelongo denied the allegations, telling In Touch Weekly the participants in the lawsuit are people who "decided that continuous hard work is not for them."
Montelongo also claimed that "a number of these individuals that I’ve taught how to be successful have opened up a competitive seminar company or a competitive educational online company and...are colluding to come together to try to bring down No. 1."
There Are Various Spin-Off Shows
Undercover Boss airs in a number of countries and has spawned a couple of notable spin-offs. Undercover Boss: Abroad, which aired in the US, is comprised of select episodes from the British, Australian, and Canadian versions of the show.
Undercover Boss: Celebrity Edition follows various celebs as they go undercover (again, in ridiculous disguises) to discover untapped talent in their chosen fields. Jewel, Idina Menzel, and Deion Sanders are among the featured guests.
Several counties produce their own versions of the show, including Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland.