Image: "Undercover Boss"
Jeffrey R. Staab  /  CBS
Dave Rife, owner of White Castle fast-food chain, appears in an episode of “Undercover Boss,” where he accidentally ruins thousands of hamburger buns after mishandling equipment in one of his bakeries.
By contributor
updated 3/22/2010 12:12:09 PM ET 2010-03-22T16:12:09

After each grueling day in the grime — his head whirling with revelations, inspirations and sanitation — Waste Management president Larry O’Donnell shed his fake jumpsuit and fake name, came home and dumped his thoughts into a legal pad.

Like the five other corporate chiefs featured so far on the CBS ratings smash “Undercover Boss,” O’Donnell said he picked up reams of business ideas, along with truckloads of trash. “I jotted them down every night before I went to sleep,” he said, “so I wouldn’t forget.” In separate interviews, all six executives said time in the trenches taught them hard (if not humbling) lessons, many of which will prompt company changes.

Sure, much of the incognito intelligence these men gathered seems wincingly obvious to anyone who earns a buck any place other than a sumptuous corner office: Frontline jobs make you sweat, make you tired, and often leave you feeling underappreciated. Working for a living is tough. Shocker.

But for the roughly 140,000 people employed by the six companies profiled to date on the CBS show, maybe there’s satisfaction in knowing that a few of their louder gripes have been seen, heard, felt — and addressed.

At Waste Management, O’Donnell recognized the need to solicit advice from his garbage collectors before launching companywide initiatives.

“We want to reach out and grab somebody from the front line to throw them on the (decision-making) team,” said O’Donnell, who appeared in the series’ first episode following Super Bowl XLIV. “Hopefully, we can avoid those unintended frustrations; we can figure those out on the front end rather than after we’ve already implemented something.”

Putting the rank in rank and file, O’Donnell vacuumed portable toilets and plucked papers at a landfill while posing as prospective employee “Randy.” During one segment, “Randy” learned that his temporary supervisor, Walter Settles, suffers from kidney problems and requires dialysis. After the program aired, O’Donnell created an internal squad of trained “health monitors” — Settles became the first — who speak to co-workers about preventative steps they can take to avoid chronic diseases.

At a White Castle store in Ohio, where the chain’s owner Dave Rife snapped on a hairnet and assembled cheeseburgers as a “trainee,” health worries also consumed the backroom chatter, including one woman’s tale of her heart attack. After finishing his covert shifts, Rife gave his workers online access to advice from nurses and dietitians, and decided his company would cover employee co-pays for preventative doctor visits. His nights behind the counter taught Rife, he said, the value of keeping his people well, and keeping his best people at White Castle.

“We’ve got some truly fantastic talent out there, and we need to learn how to cultivate that,” Rife said. “Because so many people come to us, and it’s their first job, they don’t necessarily see it as a career. So we need to help develop them, show them there are opportunities within our organization, and our family, to stick around and really have a career.”

7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto said he had the same epiphany while — as scruffy newbie “Danny” — he mopped floors and brewed pots of coffee. In his red smock, DePinto met a nightshift clerk who already had put himself through college and was considering finding new employment. That convinced the CEO to upgrade internal training and install a “talent identification program.”

“I don’t want folks to think they come to work here and get in a job, take that job for a certain time but it becomes a dead end,” DePinto said. “If they’re doing a great job, we should position them to do other things.”

That business lesson came with some cost: DePinto was filmed fumbling several basic tasks. He spilled coffee on the floor and fouled up a pastry-making assembly line. Indeed, all six bosses said they contemplated the possible disasters and embarrassments of appearing on the program. They had no control over what was aired.

Perhaps no honcho has faced a bigger risk than Coby Brooks, CEO of Hooters. He acknowledged that his chain — known for its chicken wings, not to mention its waitresses’ tight tank tops and orange short shorts — has a “delicate ecosystem” that includes a “double entendre name” and the “perception” among some consumers “that Hooters degrades women.”

“There was always the potential that it could blow up,” said Brooks, who in the second episode adopted the persona “Scotty” and accompanied some waitresses outside to offer chicken wing samples. On camera, a passing woman chastised “Scotty” for, in her opinion, Hooters’ exploitation of females.

For Brooks, the clash caused him to reconsider a basic tenet of public relations — buffing up his brand by “educating the public better on all the good things that we do,” including donating money to breast cancer research and employing “the largest percentage of females in the restaurant industry.”

“We’re held to a different standard and we’re OK with that. We’ve grown up with that and we understand it,” Brooks said. “We don’t necessarily agree with it. We put (women) on a pedestal.”

Still, that harsh, reality-TV moment made some of the show’s participating CEOs shudder. Their 15 minutes of fame could easily, instantly, devolve into months of bad press.

“If I had found an experience like what happened with Hooters, that would not have been good,” said Michael Rubin, founder and CEO of GSI Commerce, which services online retail companies through its call centers and warehouses.

Rubin’s episode aired last night. His cover story was that he recently had been laid off as manager of a sporting goods store. He took home a simple, human reminder that fast-thinking entrepreneurs can’t necessarily double as fast-packing box loaders. And that a full day’s work is physically exhausting for millions of Americans.

“I went in with the attitude that I’m 37, I’m a quick study, I should be able to do these jobs really well,” Rubin said. “But the first day, they had me packing boxes. And you have to pack a certain amount of boxes per hour. And I literally was watching this person in front of me and then watching myself, and it was pretty demoralizing.

“I was really working my butt off. I called my mom after the first day and said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do this tomorrow.’ ”

But Rubin found the experience so grounding, he is introducing a program at GSI Commerce that rotates executives to work temporarily in the company’s call centers. At Hooters, Brooks has similarly mandated that all his executives spend a few days each year pulling restaurant duty. And at the race tracks of Churchill Downs — home to the Kentucky Derby — a new “Walk a Mile in Our Co-workers’ Shoes Day” has reached the corporate starting gate, said chief operating officer Bill Carstanjen. In episode No. 5, Carstanjen donned jeans and a ball cap to wash horses and rake stalls.

The popularity of “Undercover Boss” — CBS calls it the “number one new series of the season,” averaging almost 19 million viewers per episode — is fueled, in part, by angry and frustrated American workers who want, or maybe need, to see rich bosses struggle and bumble, many of the CEOs agreed. After the heads of some U.S. banks and automakers were blamed for the national recession, it just feels good to laugh at real, red-faced executives.

“The viewer ... gets to see that the ‘big boss’ is really is just a human being who isn’t good at everything and, in fact,” Carstanjen said, “has a lot to learn.”

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Photos: The bosses of CBS's "Undercover Boss"

loading photos...
  1. The head Hooter

    Hooters President and CEO Coby Brooks at one point got told off by a woman who said the restarant exploits females. (Bill Matlock / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Garbage time

    President and C.O.O. of Waste Management Larry O'Donnell said he came away from the experience with reams of business ideas. (Dan Littlejohn / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cleaning up

    In between mopping floors, 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto had an epiphany that he should increase employee training. (Jeff Neira / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Happy talk

    President and CEO of GSI Commerce Michael G. Rubin, one of the youngest top execs in the country, learned that the customer may always be right, but sometimes they aren't very pleasant. (Studio Lambert / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Order up

    After hearing breakroom chatter, White Castle owner Dave Rife made changes to the burger-emporium's employee health plan. (Jeffrey R. Staab / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Horse sense

    Bill Carstanjen, COO of Churchill Downs, Inc., the corporation that operates the Kentucky Derby, said the series shows that sometimes the boss "has a lot to learn." (Chuck Hodes / CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
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