Have you seen “Undercover Boss,” the new reality show where CEOs take off their suits and don coveralls for a week, to find out what really goes on in their companies?
I read some reviews of the first episode, about Waste Management, and Sunday night I saw the second show, about the Hooters restaurant chain.
It’s taken me until today to quite believe what I saw.
Let me sum up Sunday’s show in case you didn’t see: Coby Brooks, the ineffectual son of the charismatic late founder of the Hooters, shaves his cheesy goatee and poses as a new employee in several stores and a sauce factory. During the week, “discovers”—at times, to his genuine surprise—that some people think Hooters is degrading to women, that “Hooters girls” are actually real people with real problems and that employees at the sauce factory don’t think much of him, since he hasn’t visited the facility since he was in sixth grade.
At several points in the show, Brooks finds himself so newly awash in the meaning and consequence of his job as the CEO of Hooters, that he begins to cry. It turns out that the head of Hooters is no more a hedonistic nihilist than you or me. He wants nothing more than to make his dead daddy proud.
At the end of the show—and this appears to be the formula for the series—Brooks donates $50K to a charity of a manager he liked, gives a fun marketing assignment to two Hooters girls he also liked and sends a stressed-out single-mom store manager into sobs of gratitude and relief by sending her and her children on a two-week expenses-paid vacation.
And then there’s “Jimbo,” a sociopathic mysogenist manager Brooks should have fired (or shot). We watched this guy force his staff of Hooters girls to compete in what he called “reindeer games” to get off work early. The game we watched, they ate baked beans off a plate with no hands. At the end of the show, Brooks simply orders to apologize to the women and change his management style. Uh-huh.
Even less convincing were the promises Brooks made to change the Hooters culture to make it more attractive to customers and a better workplace for employees.
I’ve read reviews of Undercover Boss from some communicators, who boldly declare they wouldn’t recommend that their client or company participate in it, because good TV doesn’t equal good management. And yes, someone should contact the PR people, employee communicators and HR execs at the participating companies and ask them what (in God’s name) they were thinking.
But the show does reveal truth:
The CEO is genuinely startled by a lot of what he sees, he is gobsmacked by some basic realities of the company he runs … and rather than become engage in a farcical effort to introduce dignity to the Hooters culture, he will undoubtedly return to his less spiritually rich but more psychologically sustainable world of spread sheets and earnings reports.
And Jimbo, meanwhile, will go on being Jimbo.
Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But it seems that I, and others who care about executive communications, ought to do something.