Undercover boss

Get your handkerchiefs ready—we’re going to talk about Undercover Boss. If you’ve never seen the American version of this reality TV show, the concept is that the head of a huge corporation is disguised to pass as a trainee in various positions throughout the company in hopes of learning what is or is not working for the employees and the firm. To explain the presence of the TV cameras, a video production team is supposedly charged with documenting the experiences of this “newbie”. The participants are then summoned to headquarters where they believe that they will provide an evaluation of this worker’s performance and potential as a new-hire. In reality they meet the boss, out of disguise, and hear how she or he felt the employee did. There are at least a dozen countries that have their own adaptation of this program, including France, so we wanted to see how our local one compares with the US.

Although both of us have a lot of experience of being on both sides of a company desk in the US we didn’t know a lot about French management styles. For that, I looked at several blogs on the subject to find some common traits which one source, Le Blog, puts succinctly: an over-rigid and vertical (top-down) hierarchy, high individualism, poor listening skills, lack of team spirit and communication. To balance that rather harsh description the author points to the success of many French multinational corporations. Bernard Arnault, President and CEO of LVMH with brands that include Moët and Louis Vuitton, consistently tops the Forbes list of billionaires.

Before and after the disguise

Here, the TV program is called Patron Incognito and follows the same format that we were used to where the boss is disguised and then works with employees who believe that they are with a trainee. You see them working a factory assembly line, making deliveries, decorating cakes, stocking shelves, and trying to help customers. On breaks, the boss might ask questions about hobbies and other non-work activities or even meet a family member. At the end of the week the true identity of the CEO is revealed along with her or his comments about the experience along with the plans for each employee. That is where we’ve noticed a great difference between the French and US shows.

Happy for the compliments

Earlier I’d mentioned needing a handkerchief while watching Undercover Boss which certainly was the case when people’s lives were being so dramatically changed. We learned about health issues, housing problems, and transportation difficulties. In response, we saw the boss handing out gifts including:

  • $300,000 to pay for medical bills, a car, and a house
  • $60,000 for college tuition and an apartment
  • $50,000 for knee surgery and recovery time
  • $45,000 for a wedding and for the sister’s medical care
  • $25,000 paid leave to be with a young family

On Patron Incognito, work-related issues are at the forefront: lack of supplies, unsafe work environment, understaffing, inability to accomplish the job. In this case the Patron assures the employee that each of those on-the-job challenges is being addressed and has given rewards such as:

  • Compliments on doing a good job. These almost always result in happy tears from the employee.
  • Training to address a lack in the employee’s knowledge.
  • An invitation to teach others in the company the best way to accomplish a task.
  • A promotion. For one person it was a 20% salary increase and for another, 340€ per month.
  • A pair of socks. This patron genuinely thought that his favorite socks would please an employee of a shoe making company, which it may well have, but he was mocked online by the TV viewers.

So, with Undercover Boss vs. Patron Incognito do we think that one version is better than the other? Be they the boss or the patron, in our opinion their actions are always directed toward helping the employee.  In the US that seems to be money-centered while in France where costly items such as healthcare and higher education aren’t such an issue, it’s more about personal development. As we so often say when asked to make comparisons like that, “They’re just different.”

All photos are from channel M6 on our TV.

2 thoughts on “Undercover boss

  1. Fascinating but logical differences. To think that in the US now it’s a great “prize” to win the cost of medical care is sad, and telling. Thanks for the interesting post!

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