One of this year’s popular reality TV shows was Undercover Boss, which gave executives the chance to sneak into their own workplaces to see what was going on with the rank and file.
Executives of companies such as Roto-Rooter, 7-Eleven, Waste Management, and Hooter’s portrayed entry-level workers trying to learn the ropes and view employee morale and commitment from the ground level.
And, of course, the companies usually came off looking very good and their employees looked even better. The show often featured workers facing extraordinary life challenges that they left behind them every day when they went to work. Their commitment level often surprised the executives.
But the executives shouldn’t have been too surprised by the reality they found. They should have known their own companies better in the first place.
Many companies try to look at how their employees are affected by their work. But that often is talk reserved for well-meaning human resource workers.
The majority of executives still focus their energies on getting from point A to point B in the most efficient and least costly manner. That is their primary charge.
But even when bosses are sincere about understanding their workers and their concerns, they often lack appropriate skills.
I once worked for a company whose top executive used to take Friday afternoon strolls around the office, visiting with various employees along the way. This particular executive spent 95 percent of his week cloistered behind doors in meetings with other executives. The faces may have changed from time to time, but every week he was dealing with the same three dozen people.
He thought he could understand the remaining 2,000 workers by walking the hallways.
Though well intentioned, he never quite discovered the workplace truths and support he had hoped to find. He was a rather stiff man, very businesslike, and always seemed to keep people at a distance.
But there he was trying to make small talk with whomever he ran into.
After a couple of months of frustrating Friday afternoon walks, the executive returned to his office and was rarely to be seen again outside of the executive suite.
It’s too bad. Executives probably don’t spend enough time getting to know the people who work for them and learning about the obstacles they face while performing their job duties. If they did, they could bring about greater innovation and efficiency, and contribute to building a happier workforce.
Once again, this is a workplace communication issue. Isn’t it strange that communication so often creeps up as a forgotten management tool?
Going undercover to get the low-down on workers is really nothing new. Many companies employ so-called secret shoppers to check on retail workers. Others have hired individuals under assumed identities to report on worker habits that are counter to company rules.
In the movie The Devil and Miss Jones, a union organizing effort is held at a large department store. Workers who believe they are underpaid and want better working conditions hang the owner of the store in effigy.
The owner, a publicity-shy but thriving multimillionaire, assumes a new identity and gets a job selling slippers in the store. He makes notes as he crosses with misguided bosses, unsavory coworkers and unreasonable working conditions.
In the end, he reveals his true identity, fires a string of executives and creates a better workplace for his employees.
The Devil and Miss Jones was released in 1941, which demonstrates that nearly seven decades later we are still wrestling with the same issues.