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BORED The Untold Truth Of Undercover Boss

introUndercover Boss is the wildly successful CBS reality show where a CEO or other high-ranking corporate officer dons a disguise and works alongside several employees in an effort to reconnect with and reinvigorate the brand’s identity. Skeptics believe many aspects of the show are fake or exaggerated, but producers and most show participants insist otherwise. We’ve uncovered the truth.

Bosses pick their aliases

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Undercover Boss uses the genius tactic of pretending to be some sort of “win your own franchise” game show—complete with a fake host in some episodes—to dissuade employees from figuring out they’re on Undercover Boss. Amazingly, few workers see through this flimsy facade. Maybe it’s because in every episode, the bosses must change their appearances.

According to a TV.com interview with producer Eli Holzman, the bosses are allowed to choose their disguises, which usually involve wigs, makeup, and fake facial hair that looks like it was purchased on clearance the day after Halloween. This leads us to believe the businesses either choose the most gullible employees they have working for them to participate in filming, or they actually know what’s going on but play along in hopes of being rewarded at the end.

Workplace shadowing isn’t entirely staged

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One of the biggest questions people ask is whether the work scenarios the bosses have to engage in are completely staged. The answer is yes and no. According to Holzman, the show obviously tries to pick job scenarios with good TV optics, but the bosses don’t know “exactly where they’re going to go, and they don’t know exactly with whom they’re going to work, because we want them to [have] an authentic experience.”

Though the Emmy-winning series conducts reconnaissance of employees and workplaces to look for potentially juicy opportunities, the resulting footage can still prove spontaneous. There have been more than a few occasions when a boss broke cover to fire someone on the spot. A Boston Market employee was immediately canned after inadvertently confessing to his boss, “I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world. I hate them so much.” A worker at a Retro Fitness had such a terrible attitude that she eventually started dropping f-bombs in front of the incognito CEO, effectively tendering her accidental resignation. Does the show stage some of this stuff? Sure, but the consequences can be all too real.

Featured employees are carefully selected

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Fans of the show will recognize that chosen employees often have some type of visceral connection with their boss, such as a family member coping with a similar illness, or falling behind on the mortgage like the CEO did before finding success. While these similarities aren’t the specific reason the employee is selected, Holzman admits, “If there are two people who do the exact same job in the exact same way, and one of them as soon as you see them, you laugh uproariously or cry because their story’s so amazing, and the other one it’s crickets and you’re really bored, we’re going to go with the really good one.”

The takeaway here: if you and your coworker are the best burger flippers in the kitchen, make sure he or she isn’t secretly a war hero or stand-up comedian when the Undercover Boss recruiters come calling.

Actual change does happen within companies

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Anytime a problematic employee is featured on the show, you can count on the boss to talk about implementing some new type of training program. Audiences love to watch a branch manager geek out on his staff, but is it just lip service?

Some companies have actually implemented positive steps to drive change, such as providing a financial incentive for employees to improve. Checkers CEO Rick Silva started “giving bonuses directly to team members, not just the branch managers.” Dan DiZio, CEO of Philly Pretzel Factory, discovered a brand new, hot-selling product after uncovering a “rogue franchisee” that was marketing and selling an unsanctioned pepperoni pretzel roll. DiZio wasn’t pleased with the free-wheeling franchisee, but he also took its transgression as a sign that he’d become an “out of touch” boss.

Not every boss is thrilled with the experience

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Not every undercover big wig enjoys their TV experience. Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels International, felt exploited by the show’s producers. “They look for something personal to torture you with—for me, my mom had died from Parkinson’s a few years before. And I hadn’t really dealt with it. So every chance they got they brought that up,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

Joyce also felt the show created the narrative that he didn’t know what it was like to do most of his company’s positions, despite the fact that he had worked his way up through the ranks. “They deliberately sabotage you so you don’t do well and you look stupid,” he said. “They had me cleaning the pool in Orlando in late June at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It was like 110 degrees.”

Joyce did say the experience forced him to confront his pent-up emotions regarding his mother’s death in a positive way. “My mother made me promise to always have a place for the family to get together for vacations,” he said. “…I bought a beach place two weeks after that show.” We’re not exactly sure that’s the healthiest coping mechanism, but if he’s going to give the wife and kids a hug on the deck, sure, why not?

There are dozens of international spinoffs

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Like a lot of American television, Undercover Boss started in the UK, then crossed the pond to become a hyper-inflated version of a concept that will never die so long as the networks can still extract money from it. Hence the reason CBS, TLC, and Oprah’s OWN Network have all carried the U.S. version of the show, as well as Undercover Boss: Abroad, which features some of the many international versions of the programs.

One particularly memorable episode from our usually congenial northern neighbors, featured Canadian CEO Rick Smiciklas breaking character and completely freaking out on a Wild Wing franchisee. The Huffington Post asked Smiciklas how producers felt about him blowing the show’s cover. “They told me to!” he said. “I said I can’t go in there, I have a crazy temper, I have a daughter, I don’t need an assault charge.”

That film crew sounds like instigators, eh? Fortunately, no assault charges were issued and Smiciklas said his business is doing better than ever thanks to the show.

A boss offered to reward an employee with breast implants

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The most beloved part of every Undercover Boss episode is the ending. The head honcho reveals his true identity and starts making it rain with cash, vacations, and college tuition payments for the employees who were duped by the elaborate ruse. It’s a tearjerker every time, even if it is a cheap emotional trick.

The reward concept seems straightforward, but CEO Doug Guller of Bikinis, a Hooters-style bar and grill, somehow misinterpreted it, offering one employee the following incentive: “If you can make it through six months and you’re a rockstar…I’m going to put you in touch with the best [breast augmentation surgeon] in town and we’ll make this happen!” Wow. Even for reality TV, that’s sleazy with an extra side of sleaze.

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