The boss reveals his true identity to one of the workers in an episode’s reveal (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS. February 7, 2010).

In the episode “Boston Market”, from the fourth season, a worker is fired after making disparaging remarks about customers (Undercover Boss. CBS. February 1, 2013).

For some of the workers an appearance in the series may deliver minor celebrity status and perhaps a payoff at the end of a show, but the real beneficiaries of the series are the bosses and the companies they represent. Here, the president of Moe’s Southwest Grill is shown engaged with customers while undercover (“Moe’s Southwest Grill.” Undercover Boss. CBS. January 18, 2013)

The CEO of fast food chain Fatburger, before going undercover for the fourth season of the series (“Fatburger.” Undercover Boss. CBS. April 5, 2013).

The CEO of fast food chain Fatburger working undercover at one of his company’s franchises (“Fatburger.” Undercover Boss. CBS. April 5, 2013).

In the episode “Fatburger”, the undercover CEO talks with an assistant manager in a parking lot at the rear of a restaurant. 
(Undercover Boss, CBS, April 5, 2013).

Believing she is talking with a trainee staff member, the assistant manager tells the CEO how a fast food franchise should be run and how it should treat its workers, including making sure that the staff are paid on time (“Fatburger.” Undercover Boss, CBS, April 5, 2013).

The impulse behind this worker's information-sharing, as with other workers who behave in a similar fashion throughout series, may be illustrative of an embryonic form of class solidarity as she seeks to align her new colleague’s understanding of conditions at a shared workplace, with her own dissenting view (“Fatburger.” Undercover Boss, CBS, April 5, 2013).


Undercover Boss first aired in the United States on February 7, 2010, directly following the Super Bowl XLIV post-game round up. Retaining viewers drawn to the programming that proceeded it, CBS reported the first episode of the series was watched by 38.6-million viewers, the largest audience ever for a new show airing after the Super Bowl and the most watched premiere for a reality TV show (Seidman 2010, February 8). Early promotion of the series publicized that the show had something to say about the state of the economy. In this vein, episodes from the first season of the series begin with a voiceover narration stating,

“The economy is going through tough times. Many hard working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better. Each week we follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own company” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS. February 7. 2010).

Some critics commented on the series’ link to the recession. In The New York Times, Stanley observed that the series seemed to respond to the state of the economy. She proposed that the show is “tailor-made for the anticorporate rancor of the times” (2010, February 5), and

“a psychological byproduct of the recession. A bull economy produced business competitions like The Apprentice, during which alpha executives competed for the corner office; bad times require a boss to walk a mile in his employees’ work boots” (2010, February 5).

But she adds,

“Unfortunately, the top brass of Wall Street didn’t volunteer for the riches-to-rags experiment, so the premiere episode on Sunday, right after the Super Bowl, focuses on Lawrence O’Donnell III, the president and chief operating officer of Waste Management” (2010, February 5).

In the book Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere, published to accompany the series and authored by series’ producers Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman, the program’s makers make it clear that despite the allusions to contemporary social themes in the series’ marketing, their overriding goal was something else. They write, describing the production of the first series,

“As the episodes emerged from the edit suit, everything we hoped for the series seemed to be coming true. The show delivered comedy and emotion” (Lambert & Holzman 2011:14).

In its fourth season in Spring 2013, Undercover Boss continued to deliver strong ratings for CBS with roughly 10-million viewers reported on February 1, placing it side-by-side with another reality TV show, Shark Tank, as the top rated Friday evening television show(Kondolojy 2013, February 2).

A theme stressed in publicity materials for the series is showing how the bosses will disguise their true identity to ‘pass’ as an ordinary worker.

Participatory culture?

Some media commentators have proposed that one attraction of reality TV is that seems to be a forum where ordinary members of the public can appear in the mass media, thereby gaining some measure of celebrity or perhaps even having an opportunity to represent their concerns or interests. In The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, Hal Niedzviecki proposes,

“Today, more than ever, we want to be the stars, and we’re told that, yes, we can and should and probably will be stars. After all, anybody can be a celebrity in the age of reality TV, blogging, and social networks, can’t they?” (2009:49).

Media scholar Mark Andrejevic argues that some commentators have championed reality TV as a feature of an emerging participatory culture since it seems to offer the possibility “that access to the means of media production will be thrown open to the public at large” (2004:2) and everyone can have their own television show. Or, if you can’t produce your own show, you will at least have

“a distant chance of becoming a star on one of the dozens of reality formats that have seemingly taken over the airwaves” (Andrejevic 2004:2).

For the workers featured on Undercover Boss, appearing in the series may bring a measure of personal celebrity. For example, in a newspaper article “Columbia Moe’s worker featured on ‘Undercover Boss’,” the Charlotte Observer reports that that evening a local woman, Janet Moak, a catering director for Moe’s Southwestern Grill restaurants, will appear on an episode of the series (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18). Prominently featured in the article is an image of Moak standing behind the register of one of Moe’s restaurants with a beaming smile on her face. Moak is cited as saying that to recruit her to the series, producers contacted her to see if she would be willing to appear in a pilot reality TV show. She was given few details of what was involved and did not know that the producers who contacted her were from Undercover Boss until she found herself in the show’s final reveal (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18). The article reports,

“[Moak] said she doesn’t regret anything she said to her undercover boss as he worked by her side. ‘Absolutely not because everything I did was 100 percent me,’ said Moak, who has held her position with the restaurant chain for two years. ‘I do love my job, and I fully believe in what I do’” (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18).

Moak will watch the broadcast at a private viewing party, the news report adds, trading on her minor celebrity and excitement at being featured in the series. It also reports that to celebrate the episode’s connection to the local woman, some Midlands-area Moe’s will offer “buy one, get one free” burritos after 6 p.m. (Eppley Rupon 2013, January 18).

For some of the individuals seen in Undercover Boss, an appearance in the series may deliver minor celebrity status and perhaps a payoff at the end of a show, but the real beneficiaries of the series are the bosses and the companies they represent. Stanley accurately observes, responding to the episode “1-800-Flowers” (Undercover Boss. CBS.April 11. 2010),

“Undercover Boss is less an exposé than a showcase, and the chosen companies view it as an opportunity, not a reckoning. Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers.com, who is the star of the season finale, uses it as a marketing tool, sending customers a ‘special offer’ e-mail message. ‘See our president on Undercover Boss — and shop his personal picks!” (2010, February 10).[3] [open notes in new window]

Describing searches to find boss-candidates for the series, Lambert and Holzman reveal how the companies and executives featured in the series view it. They report that it was a challenge to find executive officers with the time to participate in the series, or companies willing to sign a participation agreement in which the company “would have no editorial control and would not be permitted to see its episode until it aired” (Lambert & Holzman 2011:8). But Lambert and Holzman record that for the series’ premiere, the Waste Management episode, they had a champion. A public relations officer at the waste company recognized that

“what we were offering was madly risky, but she also thought it might just be the PR coup of her career if it all went well” (2011:9).

This PR officer prevailed, encouraging company Chief Operating Officer O’Donnell to talk with the series’ producers, thereby leading to his appearance in the first episode of the series and garnering a favorable image of Waste Management, Inc. for the millions of television viewers watching the episode.

The bosses who appear in the show may also benefit personally and professionally. National and local mainstream news coverage of the series may position the companies featured onscreen to cash in through the advertising of their products or services and the enhancement of their public relations image. Furthermore, reports on the individual episodes appear in publications with a specialized readership, such as business and trade magazines. These articles suggest that bosses may also accrue prestige within their professional peer networks by appearing on the show. For instance, in April 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education — read by university faculty and administrators — published an article in its faculty news section titled “A Chancellor Strolls His Campus in Disguise on CBS’s ‘Undercover Boss’”, describing the undercover exploits of Timothy P. White, the chancellor of University of California Riverside, when he was filmed for the show (Keller 2011, April 24).

The unequal experience of the workers and bosses who appear in the series is nowhere more evident than in cases where workers are fired during a show. In a news report published when the series was first commissioned by CBS, a reporter describing the U.K. version of the series writes,

“Once the undercover stint ends, the executive… makes changes to fix the problems. Some of those changes involve rewarding employees who deserve recognition, but others receive less happy news;” the “poor performers will have nowhere to hide” (Rocchio 2009, February 2).

This was the fate that befell one Boston Market supervisor in Duluth, Georgia, who, when he appeared on the U.S. version of the series, told the company’s undercover Chief Brand Officer Sara Bittorf,

“I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world. I hate them so much” (Adams 2013, February 5).

Bittorf immediately revealed her identity and confronted the worker. He was fired. In another incident, this time during an episode featuring the CEO of a clothing company, a worker offered the undercover boss marijuana. In this case the worker was offered retraining and a meeting with the company’s human resources department to develop “proper workplace etiquette” (Connelly 2013, February 26). As these instances illustrate, in a peculiar twist on citizen journalism as a watchdog of corporate or government malfeasance, within the formula of Undercover Boss the undercover bosses present themselves to viewers as though they are citizen reporters investigating the inner life of their own companies—unearthing truths worthy of a viewer’s attention, such as the misconduct of low-level employees.

Another scenario repeated in Undercover Boss, one that also delivers dramatic moments for the series while allowing the bosses to present themselves to viewers as arbiters of workplace justice, occurs when bosses blame low-level managers for the negative experiences of the workers who serve under them. For instance, in an episode from the series’ first season featuring the Hooters restaurant chain (“Hooters.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 14. 2010), the undercover CEO witnesses a restaurant manager bullying the waitresses in his charge. At the end of the episode the manager is called to task for his behavior, and he’s pressed to apologize to his staff and change his behavior. This scenario serves as the dramatic climax of the episode, hammering home the message that Hooters, a business operation criticized for the sexual objectification of women, cares about the wellbeing of its female employees. In scenarios such as this one,

“worker exploitation is presented as ultimately the product of a rogue manager, not corporations seeking to maximize profit” (Striffler 2010:84).

“It is typically some poor sap in middle management who has simply been following orders to meet goals that the boss set before going undercover” who carries the blame for the workforce’s travails (Striffler 2010:84).

For individuals such as the worker fired for admitting to hating customers, the work of being watched on television brings no rewards. For the series’ makers, dramatic events such as firings or the disciplining of “rogue” middle managers contribute to the show’s dramatic content, thereby drawing viewers and adding to ratings and profits. Where the series superficially appears to offer workers an opportunity to represent themselves and speak about their experiences, the series favors the bosses’ point of view on every important matter. An anonymous author writing for Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine argues,

“Forget about bagging poultry parts or pumping and dumping penny stocks. The dirtiest job in America right now is producing reality TV” (2010, February 4).

The same writer continues, while Undercover Boss purports to champion the “little guys by letting them have at the big guys,” in fact, power rests with the bosses:

“The secret executives know they're on a TV show, while the workers think the cameras are there for other reasons. … Because the series' very existence requires cooperation from the executives that it purports to make suffer for their sins, it has to raise them higher, in the end, than it found them at the start. If it doesn't, they'll stop volunteering for their fake lashings and ritual redemptions (Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine 2010, February 4).

Series’ producers Lambert and Holzman make no secret of how they envision the bosses’ role in the series or who they think viewers should see as its hero. They write that in late 2008 the recession had hit:

“There was widespread disillusionment with the leaders of corporate America, but here we were proposing a TV show that would put [bosses] center stage as heroes on a mission to learn, improve their business, and thank their employees” (2011:4).

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