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Taking your business cues from the ‘undercover boss’

If you were like many folks who watched the Super Bowl in February, you might also have watched the first segment of the newest CBS reality show "Undercover Boss." While some of the segments during the last three months have been better than others - I am told many watchers are hooked on it - when you think about it, the corporate environment is kind of a weird place.

Socially, it almost works like a miniature version of society as a whole. Managers do see the world from a different perspective than rank-and-file employees. This is true whether it be in a manufacturing facility or in a large multiunit marina sales and service organization. The same is true even in a public school setting and especially in government, as we have so often seen in the last two years.

The "Undercover Boss" concept stems from the early efforts of a prominent hotel CEO who would go and do the work of a hotel employee (doorman, cleaning person, desk clerk, restaurant worker, etc.) somewhere in the United States several times a year to be able to get continuous real-world grounding. He found that each level of management filtered out bad news when giving reports on activities in any area of work. As each of the "Undercover Boss" scenarios have pointed out, things are not always as they appear from information on a senior manager's desk.

Regretfully, the television producers have tended to glorify the personal problems of selected employees and likely created greater problems that any CEO imagined. However, viruses could have attacked the workplace, and that word would rarely get to the top unless an epidemic develops. This dilemma was very common even 40 years ago, when a survey research center at the University of Chicago found that many workplaces were being unionized even as the chief executives believed all was well. Bad news had been filtered, and there was no knowledge of any viruses in the company's workplaces.

Each fall we hear calls for folks to get their seasonal flu shots, and many routinely heed the warning to ward off the virus. A virus is microscopically small, and it would seem logical to think that such a minute thing could do no harm. Yet we know that, unattended, the infectious agent has great potential for harm. So it is in your company for a virus to attack the attitudes of workers and managers and quickly infect the entire workplace. The infected point is usually the employees' attitudes that are open to such infestation.

An attitude is viewed as any strong belief or feeling toward people and situations. Attitudes are not quick judgments that you make casually and can easily change. You acquire attitudes throughout your life, and they are deeply ingrained in your personality. Attitudes represent a powerful force in any organization.

But attitudes can be infected. A desired attitude of trust, for example, can pave the way for better communication between employees and managers. Employers do not want to hire a job seeker who demonstrates what is perceived as a negative attitude. A person's attitude is usually the most important factor to job success. A person can have the best education, experience, résumé and skills in the world, but if their attitude is wrong, it will be difficult to get hired - and retained. Yet attitudes often become infected by new co-workers and by news external to the immediate workplace, in many instances.

The most common reason employers release a worker is based on an attitude that has become infected. A person's attitude not only affects job performance, but it affects others as well. It can positively affect other workers or act as a cancer and negatively affect the performance of others. What we say and think has a powerful influence on the world around us.

In today's world, the words of managers and management policies, as well as of other business and government leaders, may well cause our attitudes to be modified. Certainly the media and bloggers today attract all workers with their fight-fight messages. Do your employees believe your executives and senior managers receive sizeable bonuses based on the work that the employees have done to save the company in the last two years? Are you sure?

A Hewlett-Packard executive coined the term "management by wandering around" (now termed MBWA, or management by walking around) as a means of determining the real health of the organization. This may be the basic foundation of a real undercover boss effort. There are a number of ways in which an executive/senior manager can go "almost undercover" and determine if employees have been infected with a virus and if various company policies may not be working as planned.

  • Management by walking around: This would focus on any non-first-line supervisor who seeks to learn what is really on the minds of employees. The "walker" will periodically walk the work area and stop to engage employees about their work and their families, their vacation plans, etc.

When a typical employee is engaged by a "boss," it is almost as if a celebrity has asked for their view. They become important because of the close connection with the "celebrity." They may tend to open up and tell far more than they would ordinarily offer.

For the executive who walks often, it becomes easier to open up and share what viruses may be infecting the departmental attitudes. The virus will likely not be identified on an initial walk-around experience. Many consultants have unique suggestions on how to conduct your walking-around experiment. If you Google "MBWA," you will find many ideas.

One word of warning: An insincere approach will be noticed early. And be sure to do something about what you learn from your walk. What organizational problems do you discover that need attention?

In the Wall Street Journal less than a month ago, U.S. Airways CEO Douglas Parker was described as one who regularly attends training sessions with pilots. He says he spends about half his time with employee communications. He gains insight by going to where the employees are and does not expect he would get the same degree of candor with written instruments.

The lesson here is to get out of your office and go to where employees gather and engage them in various topics of discussion. What would you like to see different around here? If you could change any one thing to improve job satisfaction, what would you change? The list goes on and on. Keep up the informal discussions, and the information gleaned will be accelerated.

  • Employee survey: Ideally, this is already done periodically. However, based on some recent conversations with a few readers, I think it may be an item to be added. This printed or online questionnaire allows all employees to share their concerns, even expose their attitudinal viruses.

Some companies use their human resources staffs to conduct personal interviews with a sample of employees each year. Many professional groups, as well as consultants, have ready-made employee surveys available for use. There are many free employee survey forms available online.

Minor modifications may make them suitable for your use. I suggest you use a joint employee/manager team to modify the form. The use of employees to assist will build greater response likelihood. And, most importantly, share the findings with all employees and explain what the company will be doing to remedy problems identified.

  • Exit interviews or survey: Exit information from employees can add much to the overall virus infestation information. Why they are leaving is important to know. It is costly to recruit, orient, train and maintain new employees. It saves money to keep valued employees.
  • Bottom line: As the economy continues its climb from the recession, turnover will increase. Many people have stayed with an unsatisfactory job rather than have no job. When new opportunities develop in a growing economy, such employees will jump ship, and you will have a vacancy problem. Get ahead of the curve and learn what viruses have infected the attitudes of employees. You will win by making one or more of the investments above.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus - international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.



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