Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That Is Changing Bosses And Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman. Copyright (c) 2011 John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.
By Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman
Go Undercover in Your Own Company
"I wish I could go undercover again. I'm giving advice to others in the company to find ways of doing it. I sent a number of our online team out to visit florist shops and they came back with all sorts of insights." -- Chris McCann, 1-800-Flowers
Every boss who went undercover returned convinced it was an incredibly valuable experience. Despite potentially embarrassing themselves in front of their boards, employees, and a few million strangers, they would all still recommend it to other business leaders and universally wished they could repeat the adventure. That's not because they're exhibitionists, but because no matter how hands-on as executives they were, no matter how much time they earnestly spent with frontline employees, they would always be treated as "the boss." The boss has the power to hire or fire, to promote or demote, to give a raise or pay cut. Why would anyone, from the new entry-level worker to the veteran manager, risk his or her livelihood to give the boss frank or even bad news? The only way to get past this barrier is to break ranks and pose as a new recruit. Even better, when you pose as a newbie, most people will instinctively take you under their wing and try to help you learn the ropes.
You don't need to be CEO or C-suite anything to go undercover and learn how things really run every day. All you need is a sincere desire to know the real shape of things--and an organization big enough to allow you to slip in undetected. (More than one location is the key.)
If you are motivated to go undercover in your own organization, your next question is likely where to start? How to pull it off? There is no blueprint--every boss on the show had his own unique experience and had to improvise a lot--but you can learn from their collective experience. . . .
Don't overdo the disguise
. Because we're all busy and are bombarded by sights and sounds throughout the day, we take mental shortcuts. When we see someone in a suit and tie we think, executive. When we see someone in a uniform, baseball cap, or in casual, durable clothes, we think, frontline worker. Dress like you would on a casual Friday, or if you really were going to that job. Try too hard to dress in disguise, and you'll only stick out more. The more simple, the more likely you are to keep your identity secret. "All I did was take off my glasses and wear jeans and a baseball cap," recalled Churchill Downs's Bill Carstanjen. "Yet I walked by and even talked with people with whom I'd worked before and they didn't recognize me."
Plastic surgery isn't necessary.
Your countenance might grace the pages of the company newsletter, but it's your "game face" the staff is used to seeing. Tweak your look just a bit and you won't be recognized. That means, if you're a man, letting your beard grow if you're usually clean shaven, or shaving if you usually have facial hair. If you don't wear glasses, put on a pair. And if you do, get contacts. A different hair cut would seal the deal, but isn't absolutely necessary. Cody Brooks of Hooters is a very public face of his company, on their posters and frequently in the media. Yet by shaving his goatee and adopting glasses, he sufficiently altered his image to appear as one more management trainee. On his return to headquarters, Coby endured some good natured ribbing from his executive team over losing his beard. "I would have shaved my whole head for the experience I went through," he offered, undeterred. "Going undercover helped me see that my problems aren't anywhere near as severe as those many people face. It was quite humbling. Since going undercover I find that I'm not dwelling as much on my own issues, and I'm trying to focus on others. I truly believe that if you take care of your people, and treat them well, your bottom line will work out."
Don't practice beforehand.
While it might boost your ego to be instantly able to do the physical tasks you're assigned, it's not realistic. The average Joe coming in off the street won't have a chance to practice, so neither should you. No one expects an inexperienced newcomer to know the tricks of a job right away. If you do, you'll look like a ringer and raise alarm bells. Do your best and let your coworkers teach the ropes on the job. "Don't spend too much time worrying about whether you'll fail or be the source of jokes or laughter later on," suggested Rick Arquilla of Roto-Rooter. "In a strange way, you actually end up less vulnerable when you open yourself up to the possibility, even probability, of failing."
Don't dig for information.
Resist the urge to play investigator and instead let the information emerge naturally. The average newcomer is too eager to get the job to risk ruffling feathers by pushing for dirt. Instead, ask natural, open-ended questions, like "is this a good place to work." The first impulse at most workplaces is to take pity on the new guy, so any widely held feelings about the job will emerge naturally--as long as you don't appear like a company spy. Waste Management's Larry O'Donnell was able to appear both eager and inexperienced, and so was able to get a great deal of insight from the unsolicited candid comments of a line leader at a recycling facility and a driver on a residential trash route. "The people doing frontline jobs at a company know quite a bit about how to make things better," offered Larry O'Donnell. "If you listen to them, and try to implement some of what they suggest, they will be so happy and engaged that it will make them feel even more a part of your team."
Don't offer suggestions.
It's a fact of life in every workplace that suggestions aren't necessarily appreciated from the uninitiated. As a new hire, you won't change corporate mandates or processes on day 1 at a job. Pushing too hard will likely backfire, and cloud your own experience. Make a note of your idea, but don't broadcast it. See what you learn from others by experiencing the job from their vantage point. Michael Rubin of GSI Commerce noted, "The hardest thing about being undercover wasn't taking orders; it was seeing things that I didn't like, or that I thought could be done better, and not being able to address them."
The break room is the equivalent to the old-time neighborhood bar. People look for, and usually get, acceptance and support. Let people get to know you and show a genuine interest in getting to know them, too. "I was surprised by how open people were about their personal lives," admitted Joel Manby of Herschend Family Entertainment. "When you're an executive your meetings tend to be about particular problems and issues and there isn't a lot of time for personal interaction. I found it refreshing."
Arrive on time.
When you're paid by salary and not by the hour, the exact time you arrive isn't a big deal. But when you have to clock in and out, when your pay is determined by the specific hours you work, an hour's pay makes a big difference in your life. Dave Rife of White Castle was made acutely aware that he'd shown up late for his first shift at the company's frozen food factory by his trainer for the day, and promised it wouldn't happen again. He has no qualms recommending the undercover experience to others. "Any executive who has a chance to go undercover in their organization shouldn't hesitate. If you go into it with an open mind and are willing to face the tougher side as well as the good side of it, you and your company can only grow and improve. On a personal level, the experience taught me to better open my eyes, my ears, and my heart and absorb everything I can from other people, no matter who they are or what their job or profession is."
Have fun with it.
People go to work because they believe in what they do, and hopefully, they can believe in their bosses and their companies, too. Once you let go of control and fear of the unknown, you'll find it the most freeing experience. Ultimately, you'll realize why you love your job, and why you come in every day too. "When I first went undercover I thought I'd be focusing on finding areas to improve from an efficiency perspective," explained GSI Commerce's Michael Rubin. "I didn't realize I'd learn so much about the culture of the business and the people. I came away more energized than ever to create more opportunities for the great people who work for us." Joe DePinto of 7-Eleven agrees. "Every single employee I met was amazing. What we have to do is support them better." And Churchill Downs's Bill Carstanjen has this piece of advice: "If you're going to go undercover you need to put aside your own self-absorption and think about the people you're working with. This experience is about them."