The Myth of the Benevolent Boss

Following this year’s Superbowl, viewers who stayed tuned to CBS were treated to the premiere of the network’s new series, Undercover Boss, in which COO of Waste Management Corp., Larry O’Donnell, dons coveralls to go undercover in his own corporation.

The premise of the show according to CBS is that

Each week a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company. While working alongside their employees, they will see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run… O’Donnell’s mission is to garner an up-close look at his company and workforce to see how and where improvements can be made from both an operational and morale standpoint.

In the premier episode, O’Donnell, alias “Randy,” cleans toilets, picks up trash and sorts recyclables alongside his workers, and in so doing he comes to realize that… wait for it…manual labor is hard! Randy is also surprised to learn that, unbelievably, when trash collectors are followed by supervisors in conspicuous white pick-ups, they feel as though they are being spied on and that when his company eliminates positions, the work load is shifted onto remaining employees who receive no additional compensation for their extra labor.

In the blogosphere the show has already attracted much attention, mostly negative, and largely deserved.   The New York Post reported that unlike a “reality” show, for which participants are paid, the network has labeled the show both a “docu-narrative” and a “formatted documentary,” which CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler tells Josef Adalian “…hits all of the same visceral high points of our scripted shows. It’s emotional, it’s funny, it’s compelling, it’s full of surprises…”

And it’s also a bargain for the network because as “documentary” CBS is not bound to pay any of the participants as it would with scripted or “reality” shows. Responding to TV Squad’s reports of the uncompensated appearances, a CBS spokesman said, “No one in the company is being paid for participation in Undercover Boss. Neither the employees, the executives, nor the companies receive compensation for participating in the show.” The blog reports that the workers in the program signed releases to be in a documentary film, which means it is not covered by the television actors’ union, thus eliding the requirement for minimum payments for TV appearances.

As incredible as the irony of a “docu-narrative” that chronicles the plight of workers without paying them might be, equally disconcerting is the meta-narrative that drives the series, described by Tassler as “aspirational…it’s wish fulfillment and it’s a new form (of reality).”

Randy/Larry rides along with a female trash collector.  When he learns that under the watchful eye of the aforementioned supervisor surveillance truck, she is reduced to urinating into a tin can rather than compromising productivity by taking a bathroom break, he appears visibly shaken., Undercover Boss suggests that O’Donnell’s experience will lead to better policies, as O’Donnell tells NPR’s Linda Holmes:

I was out working a residential route, and I then found out that one of the policies that I had put in place was actually causing a lot of frustration out there in the field. So we’re working right now on improving our communication and our coaching between the supervisors and the drivers.

When pressed by Holmes to reveal “tangible” changes in corporate policy, O’Donnell responds with non-specific corpo-speak about motivational videos and better communication instead of actual policy shifts.  The white truck isn’t going away anytime soon, probably because it is part of a strategy to save the company more than $100 million and increase divided to stockholders, as outlined in the company’s most recent annual report.The episode focuses on five “unsung heroes”—the trash collector, a cancer-survivor field office worker performing three jobs (due to corporate streamlining of positions also noted in the annual report) to support her family and hang on to her home, a dialysis patient who blows O’Donnell away with his positive attitude, a plant worker who must race back from lunch to avoid what appears to be an illegal pay docking policy, and a toilet scrubber who makes his job “fun.” While the first two voice complaints about corporate policies, all perform their jobs with capability and aplomb, and each (save the trash collector) is tangibly rewarded: the field office worker is promoted to a salary position, while the dialysis patient and the toilet scrubber are given temp gigs as in-house motivational speakers.  Meanwhile, the middle manager responsible for enforcing the time clock policy is roundly taken to task by O’Donnell, although O’Donnell later tells NPR the whole issue was a “miscommunication.”

Absent from the narrative is union representation, which is perhaps not surprising given Waste Management’s troubled history with the Teamsters that culminated with a lockout of workers in 2007 and has resulted in at least one settlement with the union over its practices toward organized labor.

Instead, even as the show glorifies the unsung worker, it also perpetuates the myththat all workers need to improve their lots is a positive attitude and a benevolent COO, a mythology that ignores some of the stark realities of corporate culture.

Media promote that mythology, perhaps unwittingly, through a recession narrative  that valorizes workers’ willingness to sufferithe necessary indignities of work life because they are, and should be, grateful just to have a job during the economic downturn.. Such stories tend to ignore the contradictions of the narrative in favor of the media friendly package.The narrative says that companies are struggling, but a recent Sagework analytics study shows that waste collection is among the industries experiencing the largest sales growth over the last twelve months.

At the same time, overall worker productivity rose 7.2 percent, according to the most recent Labor Department statistics, as employers wring more labor from existing workers and, in many cases, engage policies that CNN’s Peter Walker notes “would have been seen as too radical, or too likely to antagonize unions, before the crisis.” , Indeed, charts a rise in wage and worker’s rights violations during the same period.

The goal of the CBS program is, in itself, laudable: to connect the disparate dots between top-level policy and the daily lives of workers. But by perpetuating the “feel-good” narrative over the more complex contingencies of the real story of workers and bosses in a tough economy, the show engages in nothing short of myth-making, which as John Drakakis notes, is born of an impulse to produce

…a series of essentialist meanings which function to transform a sequence of historical and political events into a series of permanent, one might say almost literary truths, which can when deployed by the powerful constituencies, deflect resistance or challenge by framing the historically contingent as a ‘tragic’ necessity…

While Drakakis is referring specifically to instances in which pundits evoke literary frames for politically complex realities, his thoughts are relevant for cultural productions like Undercover Boss, that in mythologizing the corporate narrative, reduce complexities to what Roland Barthes has called the “depoliticized speech” of myth. The idea that bosses value their workers and care about their needs enough to change company policies is, sadly, more a myth than a reality.  It reinforces another problematic myth: that labor unions aren’t  necessary.  If workers do their jobs the best they can, then the boss will respond to their needs.

Perhaps CBS is banking on the appeal of these myths in producing Undercover Boss, but skeptical viewers will recognize the truth in the smirks of O’Donnell’s management team when he explains that the company’s policies make workers unhappy.  And the strategies outlined in Waste Management’s annual report remind us that profit always matters more than people.  So much for the myth of benevolent management.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

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11 Responses to The Myth of the Benevolent Boss

  1. Pingback: Humanizing The Boss at Reports from the Economic Front

  2. tim says:

    But the show also ends with the company involved looking like good guys, so they probably figure it’s the equivalent of an hour-long free advertisement on national TV.


  3. Chuck says:

    One more thing, what’s even worse is that you label with all of this negativity, and then insinuate that those that do not follow your views aren’t up to par with the cruel reality of this world. Kind of like how a bully would impose their rules on a peer in elementary school. Pathetic.


  4. Chuck says:

    I haven’t seen an episode yet where the employees weren’t compensated…maybe not by the station….but the “boss” took care of them. I am so relieved to hear that they aren’t being paid to be on t.v….doesn’t that make it a bit more real? Seriously, you want these COOs and CEOs to be paid for being on t.v. and then you want the employees to be paid, and perhaps they should cover any raises too? Let’s just make the entire thing scripted, so that way you can write an article about how the emotions aren’t real…they are paid for.

    What suggestions do you offer to improve upon these insults you throw at the show? How can it be done better and more realistic if not in this fashion? It’s ashame that people like you make their living and/or fanbase off of negativity. You do it for the attention, not the truth. That’s why the “best” critics are often found to be the best actors, and the worst customers.


  5. Kenny says:

    Careful Fred,
    That would be my grandfather that fought in a war to keep Hitler “over there” so you can sit around and complain about “the rich man” that was probable up 4 hours before you this morning trying to keep his company afloat pending all the “share the wealth” that’s about to drain his Balance Sheet.


  6. fred says:

    Good one Kenny! With that argument we could go back a few more generations and condone slavery. Lazy ass white people who use others to get them rich is what this is all about! Not about how strong or stupid people are who will sell themselves for the few pathetic pieces of silver the rich man is willing to part with. WAKE UP! Your grandad got the shaft just like every generation before him!


  7. Kenny says:

    WOW…I’m thinking Mr. Francisco could have written this article before he even saw the show. I come from a working class background (farming) and I was taught you went to work and you were expected to work. We did not need UNIONS to protect us. We simply produced. And if I’m working for a person that had put their own money on the line to start up a business and they offered me a job, then I DID MY JOB. If that meant digging ditches in 100 degree weather than I was smart enough to wear a hat and bring plenty of water. If that meant I p**d in a cup to keep going, that’s what I was getting paid for. I wonder what “Rosie the Riviter” to say to our generation? “Gee, can’t work today boss, I was up all last night Facebooking with my friends”. “Think I could get FMLA”? “I just don’t understand why they need to close the factory and move to a foreign country”? I truly believe our grandparents would be ashamed of us. But, not to worry. I’m heading out to McD’s to get an Extra Value Meal and wait for my FREE health insurance to kick in. PATHETIC what we’ve become.


  8. Pingback: Reports from the Economic Front » Blog Archive » Humanizing The Boss

  9. James Moy says:

    It seems like UB is the softer side of a larger workerspliotation (if that’s not a redundant term) trend – I’m thinking of shows like Ice Road Truckers, Axe Men, and Deadliest Catch, where workers who are unable to protect themselves from workplace dangers are valorised as tough.


  10. Pingback: The Myth of the Benevolent Boss « Working-Class Perspectives | Drakz Free Online Service

  11. Kathy Newman says:

    I watched this episode and was surprised at how emotional it was at a number of levels. While I agree that the reasons for CBS producing the show, and WM participating in it, are not progressive, and I like the idea of Roland Barthes’s myth of “depoliticized speech,” I was surprised to see how genuinely cheerful and hardworking the workers were on camera. The show did portray them as fully human, and it did show how difficult and demanding their jobs were. Not typical for network TV!


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