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Watch ‘Undercover Boss’ —and learn

by Al Wahnon

I read an interesting article on a new television show called, “Undercover Boss,” that the author urges the president of every manufacturing company and distributorship to watch. The Sunday night program depicts a top officer of a major corporation who goes “undercover” and takes a job working at his company’s various branch operations. This affords him an invaluable opportunity to go directly to the source to learn how effective the company is in meeting the needs of its employees and what the workers think of the company, its products and its executives. He meets employees and fraternizes with them and gains information undiluted and accurate. There is nothing surreptitious about this practice. It is not spying. It is for the good of the company and its employees and everyone benefits.

The executive also gets a chance to observe the many facets of the operation he oversees and often finds a number of procedures that can be improved based on employee input. Another benign consequence of the experience is recognizing employees who would have gone unnoticed and now can be considered for advancement. At the end of the show, the boss brings the employees—the outstanding performers and the substandard— into the company’s headquarters where he singles them out for promotion or improvement.

I know it’s just another reality show and you may not be a patron of that genre, but it might have a redeeming feature. What do you think would happen if you went undercover in your company? How would your employees describe your company; would they speak of it with pride or disdain? Do they feel appreciated or exploited? There are a myriad of questions to be posed and many startling answers in response. The exercise is worth the effort and whatever expense that might be attached.

One of the most important things a top executive can do is connect with his employees. As many studies show, money doesn’t always motivate employees. Working conditions do. Important to the employee is how the company views him (how high he is in the pecking order) and how he views the company (its standing in the industry and among consumers). Through the years, I have toured many plants with top executives and I noted how some employees greeted the company officer with affection and engaged him in intimate conversation and others were aloof and hostile.

Why is this so important? If an employee does not believe in your company and the work he is doing, how likely is it that he will go the extra mile for you? How many of those employees will stay beyond quitting time to make sure all orders for the day are processed? How will they reflect the company’s image in the community and does that mean prospective employees will seek employment in your business or shun it?

With the present state of the economy, management is in control of the labor market. But it won’t always be that way. Once again, there will be a fight for talent and those who are your best workers will be sought after and the “marginal” employees will remain on your payroll.

So, if you go undercover, be sure to observe diligently and reward the worthy, for they are tomorrow’s leaders. One expert says employees want three things from their employers: To be appreciated for the work they are doing, to be included in as much decision-making as possible, and they want the company to help them when they’re dealing with personal issues.

You don’t have to go undercover to find out what’s going on in your company, but that’s one of the perks of being the boss.