Undercover Boss

Channel 4’s long running business show returns, but should it be delving deeper into the companies underlying problems?

The sixth series of Undercover Boss started this week on Channel 4 with the boss of Moss Bros Brian Brick (alliteration overload, surely?) donning a disguise and mingling incognito with his overworked and underpaid staff. What was amazing wasn’t that the show has lasted so long, but the fact that Moss Bros still existed. Who knew? And what better way to make people aware of this than an hour long show on network TV? When the show started 5 years ago it was a novelty, and spent more time with the company staff highlighting the problems the companies faced. These days things are slightly different. The whole opening section is spent watching the CEO, in this case Brian, having his hair dyed, donning some ridiculous cloths (Brian plumped for loafers, what looked like a hunting jacket and a multi coloured bow tie, making him stand out like a sore thumb) and saying farewell to his family. You would have thought he was leaving his family for months and not just a week in a Premiere Inn.

The first problem with the format is that, in this day and age, it’s highly improbable that staff wouldn’t know their own CEO. From my time working in big companies the big wigs liked nothing more than having their faces known throughout the company, and the fact that so many staff don’t twig is somewhat unbelievable. Add to that the fact that they are followed by a film crew and a lame cover-story about filming a documentary concerning older people changing careers and it all seems a little forced.

What Brian discovers on the shop floor wasn’t a surprise to anyone. He started in Bristol in a store that hadn’t been refurbished. Manager Richard travelled from Cardiff every day, was painting the walls of the store himself, and couldn’t afford to marry his girlfriend. In Richmond, young and trendy Thierry informed Brian that the company website was terrible, they needed to get onto social media and their cloths should appeal to the younger generation. And on the road with driver Dave, it turned out that he had too many drops to fit into a working day, the trucks were knackered, the hanging rails were falling apart and the amount of paperwork at each drop was unwieldy. He was also woefully underpaid and saving to take his family to Florida.

Now, if you had asked me before the programme what problems he might encounter, most of these would have been on the list. In fact, all the problems he came across were the kind of things that you would have thought any big company would have highlighted long ago and got fixed. What it showed was a company disconnected from its staff, putting profit before people and woefully out of touch with what the modern shopper wants. But the show discovered long ago that that’s no way to end a show. You need to end on an upbeat, feel-good note that shows the CEO in a good light, and the company as a responsive, progressive employer that listens to its staff and is willing to change, and the way it does this is to take a sharp left turn into “Surprise Surprise” territory.

In the most sickening part of the show, the employees featured are taxied to head office (surely they know what’s going on at this point?) and plonked in front of the CEO where they are amazed that the pleb they worked with for a day is actually head of the company and earning probably 20 times more than they are. Then comes the game show part of the programme, for us the audience. Will Richard get the money to marry? Will Thierry be promoted for his forthrightness? Will xxx get to take that out of reach Florida vacation? Three out of three for me in this opening show, and I can’t imagine my score dropping throughout the series. It’s a sickeningly sweet end to a show that should be about the way companies are failing in the way they run the businesses and treat their staff. Instead, in this opener, Brian ended as the benevolent Father Christmas figure, handing out gifts to pacify his frustrated workforce. What it doesn’t show is the reaction of their colleagues. Moss Bros only has 12 drivers (all equally frustrated I’d imagine) and yet only the one gets a luxury free holiday. How popular do you think he was when he went back into work the next day?

There is the germ of a good idea in Undercover Boss but it gets lost as the filmmakers seem intent on showing the bosses of these companies in the best possible light. Whether they actually fix the problems they discover is never really shown, and whether the working conditions and wages change for anyone other than the featured employees is seriously in doubt. In the end it’s hard not to see the programme as just a promotional puff piece for the companies involved.

Duncan Stripp

Updated: Jul 18, 2014

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