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.
The US version of Undercover Boss is based on a British reality show of the same name. The creator of that show, Stephen Lambert, came up with the concept while watching the fiasco that accompanied the opening of British Airways Terminal 5.
In that epic public relations fail, Heathrow opened a new terminal after much hype and promotion only to have the event marred by interminable lines, egregious wait times, lost luggage, and canceled flights. When BA's CEO Willie Walsh was later questioned about whether he'd experienced such hassles while flying his airline, he responded, "I can't because people in BA recognize me."
This answer gave Lambert an idea. What if Walsh – or the CEO of any company – wasn't recognized by their staff? Would they see the business as other, regular folks do? Would their experience change how they conduct business?
And thus, Undercover Boss was born.
Fans of the show know the employees who work with the undercover boss usually have a compelling story. Whether they're taking care of sick family members, recovering from an addiction, or experiencing some other hardship, reality TV cameras are there to document it.
This is no coincidence. The producers devote a huge amount of time to finding the right employees' stories to tell, seeking out the angles that make for the best television. They often film multiple employees working with the undercover boss, but only the most entertaining ones make it to air. As executive producer Eli Holzman explained:
If there are two people who do the exact same job in the exact same way, and one of them as soon as you see them, you laugh uproariously or cry because their story's so amazing, and the other one it's crickets and you're really bored, we're going to go with the really good one... it isn’t that every single interaction the boss has is fascinating and heart-warming, but those are the ones [that end up in the] 42-minute show.
The bosses are not told beforehand what stores they're going to or which employees will be present. This approach helps keep people honest and promotes genuine reactions from the bosses.
The awkward struggles these bosses deal with are in no way staged for your viewing pleasure. They really happen, and sometimes the commitment to authenticity has caused problems, at least for insubordinate employees.
Take the Boston Market staff member who was comfortable enough with his "new co-worker" to proudly confess, "I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world. I hate them so much." Of course, this co-worker was his boss: Boston Market's Chief Brand Officer, Sara Bittorf.
When the employee made this comment, Bittorf dropped her disguise and fired him on the spot. "I can't have someone who just told me that they hate customers more than anything in the world serving our guests," she said. "That's the complete antithesis of what we stand for."
In most Undercover Boss episodes, the producers tell employees they are filming a documentary or they're taping a game show in which the new "employee" is vying to win their own franchise; this explains both the new staff member and the cameras.
Despite all this, the problem remains that some CEOs are instantly recognizable, at least to longtime employees. Enter the disguise.