Saturday, February 2, 2013
In which I watch Undercover Boss
For those of you who are privileged enough to have never seen an episode of Undercover Boss, the basic premise is this: head corporate honcho joins climbs down the ladder to join little people in the trenches for a few days. While on the job -- washing dishes, doing sanitation work, or in tonight's episode, cutting chickens in half at Boston Market -- the bosses learn something about just how difficult it is to do intellectually bereft, physically repetitive, and socially unrewarding work all day, and show off their newfound respect for the worker by bestowing gifts of cash and promotion on the the employees with the most tragic stories and cheeriest demeanors. In this particular episode, three employees received approximately $20,000 each, to which one drive-thru worker responded with an exclamation that God moves in mysterious ways.
Like essentially every other reality television show, Undercover Boss offers emotional payout in the form of providential benevolence. We can all feel good because the single mother going to school part-time on her days off can move up in the company, and the aspiring nurse can quit her second job to learn the break management software and teach it to the regional market leaders. Or at least we can until we think about the other seventy-five employees who are still moving warmed-over green beans around in a stainless steel box to make them look "nice" for the customers. But Undercover Boss bothers me more than shows like American Idol or Say Yes to the Dress because it touches more on the realities of life in the service industry while simultaneously valorizing the enforcement of brand-management affect-policing.
The Boston Market episode makes this particularly evident because it is apparently the only episode in which an employee is fired by the undercover boss. While the self-proclaimed "Kim Kardashian" of Boston Market is an abrasive personality who clearly takes some perverse pleasure in shit-talking the clientele, he is ultimately fired not for expressing these sentiments to a customer (he does not), but to a woman he presumes to be a non-Boston Market diner waitress with aspirations to owning a restaurant. In this context, his catty vitriol re: elderly customers and crying children comes off less as corporate insubordination and more like service-worker solidarity. "It's not mean of me to hate customers," he says at the end of the episode, and while it certainly would be 'mean' to hate any of them as individuals, a generalized resentment of the category of customer on the part of service workers seems almost banal.
But more than the firing of a petty and disgruntled employee, it's the weekly rehashing of the 'boss goes slumming' schtick that really grates. What it makes evident, in the end, is that none of the bosses worked their way up in the company, but were rather outside hires. This gives lie to the opportunities provided, at the end of each episode, to those few selected employees to "move up" in the company. Ultimately, the boss goes back to her job mending Boston Market's failing brand -- a job depicted at the beginning of the show as consisting mostly of tasting chicken and spouting off phrases about better living through fast food -- and the rest of Boston Market's front line employees go back to their dead-end service jobs without a $20,000 reward from corporate for busting their ass while still attending school. The fact is, retail, food service, administrative, and other low-wage jobs are often defined by dead-end career development, unpredictable hours, minimal benefits, and precarious job security. The fantasy that things would be better on the bottom if only those on the top knew just how hard it was strips workplace relations of any political context, relegating the experience of the worker to a simple test of who can be the happiest when the cameras are on.