White Castle Boss Goes Undercover and Learns Employee Engagement Works

[tweetmeme]I was finally persuaded by a friend to watch the new hit show “Undercover Boss.”  This reality show confirmed that a CEO can learn a lot about how to make the company better by engaging with employees. For those who haven’t seen the new show on CBS, a CEO goes undercover as an employee in his own company to see for himself how things are working.  Dave Rife, owner of the White Castle hamburger chain, was this past Sunday’s undercover snoop.

Praise for a job well done

When he started his adventure, I don’t think he fully understood how stressful the job of a White Castle employee can be, with the fear of losing a job always in the background when you have a disabled child, as one employee did, or another’s fear of simply messing up.

How Do I Do This?

Mr. Big Shot discovered that he couldn’t do simple chores like sliding plastic wrap over a batch of buns in the packaging machine.  He ruined several barrels’ worth, prompting a supervisor to say the hogs (who get to enjoy the mangled buns) would be eating well that night.

What he learned best, though, was how important employees are to the success of the company.  At a White Castle drive-in a young co-worker explained to him about the importance of greeting each customer and going out of your way to help with little things, like sliding the customer’s credit card in a hard-to-reach slot.  In watching this scene, I was almost brought to tears by the young man’s sincerity and dedication.  So was Dan Rife.

Another employee showed him a shortcut, but told him not to tell management, because that’s not how they said it was supposed to be done.

After his eye-opening week on the road, working besides his employees, Rife returned to headquarters wiser and more appreciative of what it means to be on the front lines.

Magically, he brought several employees to headquarters to assist with developing training programs – hey, they should.  Aren’t they the ones who know what the problems are and how to fix them?  He gave a $5,000 scholarship to a budding chef, and another $5,000 to the employee with a disabled child.

The program ended with Rife speaking to a pep rally of employees, beaming with the joy of being acknowledged by the head of the company. Happy with the recognition that they were asked to work as a team to achieve the company’s success.

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  1. I watched it once and just loved it. Since I work in your field too, I marvel at how little those at the top know about the day-to-day business. This is a great opportunity for them to find out first hand! The Waste Management CEO was amazed. This makes me want a digital recorder so I can see them ALL!

  2. Great post! I think this show is such a timely example of senior executives adapting to the growing importance of cultivating a collaborative, circular work environment. The more employees feel isolated and ignored by management, the more customers will feel disconnected from the product. Not having customers that have your back is a recipe for disaster in the digital world. Be real or be revealed. Employees can help companies look in their collective mirrors, admit their mistakes, acknowledge their strong points, and make changes for the better of their people, customers, and bottomlines. The fact that some special CEOs are willing to bare the backend of their company’s operations on national TV knowing that they won’t have the ability to edit what is being seen as it unfolds before their eyes just might be a sign that some companies are starting to get it. I’m sure the CEO of Hooters from an earlier episode wanted to run for the hills when one of his managers was having a team of waitresses eat beans off plates like dogs to see who got to come home early. It was horrific and I’m sure he was humiliated, but he survived and the company will learn from it. Appearances on this show remind me of the Dominos commercials where customers are complaining about the pizza. The jaw-dropping honesty of Dominos and their promise to do better has refreshed their brand and provided them a platform to grab marketshare from Papa John’s. Companies that have the guts to go inside, be honest about what they’ve seen and make the changes necessary to be better employers and service providers will gain the glory in a connected world.

  3. I love this show. It shows that front line intelligence is extremely valuable to a company’s business objectives. I am glad to see the show is catching on and that people see the value in granular engagement.