Undercover Boss : Why It Makes Me Mad

Steve Phelps, chief marketing officer for NASCAR, poses at NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010
Steve Phelps, chief marketing officer for NASCAR, poses at NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010. Phelps spent nine days in July filming an episode of "Undercover Boss," doing a variety of industry-related jobs. He painted portions of Daytona International Speedway, worked with a pit crew for Hendrick Motorsports, was a tire assistant for Michael Waltrip Racing and sold concessions during a race weekend. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

In the CBS' reality show, Undercover Boss, a boss gets a glimpse of the day-to-day operations in their own company. Now in it's fourth season, I've finally had enough.

At the time of this writing, the most recent episode featured Paul Damico of Moe's Southwestern Grill. I don't mean to pick on Paul (and I'm sure he doesn't mind extra attention to his fast food chain, which I'd never heard of before this show). While the bosses are different every episode, the journey is more or less the same, and I don't know about anyone else, but it
pisses me off. Here's why:

As the show opens, we're introduced to Paul and his family who live in a McMansion and have everything the American dream has to offer. Paul and his wife seem nice and hard-working. No problem so far. Every boss has reasons for going undercover, and according to the show's website, "Paul wants to make sure that the employees of the company are not falling short of the brand standards. Paul looks forward to the opportunity to change some associates lives just like his father's boss helped their family when his brother was in need of a liver transplant." No problem there either. Sounds like a heart-felt story of giving back.

Paul goes undercover as a rockabilly-styled, failed steakhouse owner. I dug the fake tattoos that were part of his disguise. He learns of the struggles and ambitions of his employees working in a few different Moe's around the country. One young manager tells Paul she worries about her kids' future more than her own. At the end of the show, Paul reveals himself as the boss, and the employees are amazed to find out who he really is. He rewards them with advancement opportunities and/or cash, if he thinks they deserve it. Paul's gifts included $40,000 for the young manager to start a college fund for each of her kids and then $15,000 so she "wouldn't have to worry." A line worker got $35,000 to buy a car and to pay for his daughter's day care while he is at work.

This moment is always emotional. Tears are shed and lives are changed for the lucky employees that happen to be on the show, but for me there's no catharsis. I can't help but think of every other employee at Moe's. I'm guessing Paul has hundreds, if not thousands, of employees all facing similar challenges. These Undercover Bosses insult our intelligence by acting as if they had no idea that people working for them could be going through such tough times. Paul's gift implies that he knows his young manager will have great difficulty sending her kids to college on the salary she makes at Moe's. The line worker naturally cannot afford a car or daycare.

Giving these gifts, Paul was brought to tears by how good it felt to help these people, but if Paul really wants to help them, can he pay a better wage? Then they might be able to save for their children's college education, or get a car, or pay for daycare. If it felt so good to help these few and the company is so successful, why not really do something about the problem? These are rhetorical questions: we know corporations are motivated by the bottom line, but this is the hypocrisy the show presents. It's not that heart-warming at a second glance.

Undercover Bosses imply that it is some kind of a special treat to earn a living wage, or to have time off for a needed surgery or a vacation, or to have a reasonable work schedule to plan childcare around. These were gifts bestowed on employees by bosses in past episodes. The employees chosen for the show do benefit from this help and, if nothing else, the show is good for that, but it blatantly exploits these "feel good" scenarios for publicity and accentuates greater problems than it solves.

What do you think?