Volume 51, Issue 1: Winter 2017

Undercover Boss: disciplining workers for fun and profit

Image from PogDesign.co.uk

Undercover Boss, the U.S. version of the hit TV show (a Canadian version lasted five seasons) is entering its eight season. The show is predicated on a CEO going undercover in their own company to understand their business and workers better. Superficially, Undercover Boss is a feel-good story about the benevolence of corporate CEOs, a closer reading reveals it creates a myth that resolves itself squarely on the side of capital while simultaneously functioning as a warning to workers that their boss could be watching them at any time.

Undercover Boss is different from shows such as Big Brother, where the participants volunteer to their surveillance. In Undercover Boss, the workers are introduced to a new co-worker (their boss) with a backstory about why they are being followed by cameras. Watching Undercover Boss, the viewer, as well as the worker on TV, internalizes the idea that their boss may be watching them at any time. It is the panopticon as entertainment; Foucault’s idea of observation being arranged so that the “surveil- lance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”

Every episode features a makeover segment preparing the CEO to go undercover. Invariably, no boss is made to look better. In fact, most disguises appear to the viewer as laughable. The wigs are ridiculous. Fake tattoos are common. Bad dental work is created. Undercover Boss is creating a caricature of the working class.

The most important segment of each show is the big reveal when the bosses confess that they have been working undercover and give rewards to exemplary employees. For example, Angel from the Mod- ell’s sporting goods episode, who had been home- less, was given $250,000 to buy a house. This promotes the image of what June Deery in Consuming Reality calls “caring capitalism,” explaining how “companies employ television as a mechanism for positioning themselves as a producer not only of goods but of social good.” However, the social good is illusory as it only benefits the individual workers while the structural reasons for the employee’s problems are ignored.

Undercover Boss doesn’t just reward model employees, it punishes errant ones. One of the most (in)famous of the disciplined employees was Ronnie from Boston Market. The boss was initially amused by him. Things took a turn for the worse when Ronnie shared his views on customers. “I literally hate customers. I hate them so much. They’re terrible. But it’s okay, we suffer.” The boss broke cover and fired him on the spot. A special episode entitled “Epic Employees” revisited past employees. Ronnie noted, “I can’t find work anywhere,” and joked, “I used to be the Kim Kardashian of Boston Market, but now I’m like the Shirley Temple of Unemployment.” The firing of Ronnie was for the cameras. It served to restore faith in the brand image of Boston Market and to remind workers that one must offer service with a smile both externally and internally. This discipline was not unexpected as the show scaffolds our expectations, building to this outcome. However, this does not mean that the dominant reading is the only one.

Undercover Boss attempts to limit worker agency in its highly constructed reality show. Every employee who voices a critique is reprimanded, retrained, retired, or outright fired. However, even the show cannot make us “un-hear” the critique. For example, Andrew, a worker at the Oriental Trading Company, states their slogan should be, “We work you more for less.” Aaron of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen refers to executives as corporate clowns and critiques their store visits: “You’re not back here frying chicken. You came here smelling like Dolce Cabana cologne, you left here smelling like Dolce Cabana.” While these critiques do not undo the myth-making of Undercover Boss, they offer a path to alternative readings of the show and serve to remind us that even a highly constructed narrative like Undercover Boss cannot paper over all the cracks and contradictions in capitalism.

An extended version of this essay will appear in the journal Popular Culture Review in 2017.