Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman

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Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman

Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: Nine American bosses go undercover and meet their workforce in a book based on the US TV series.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Jossey Bass Wiley
ISBN: 978-0470916001

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I guess I have to admit to a certain weakness for a certain type of reality TV – it's a long time since I watched Big Brother and I've not been sucked into watching talent contests – but I do quite like programmes in which the participants swap places and/or step out of their normal lives to, allegedly, see how someone else lives.

I haven't watched any of the TV series this book is based on – the US version of Undercover Boss, a UK export (although it was recently shown here on Channel 4), mainly because I didn't know it was on and I have limited TV watching time at the moment. I don't think it mattered. This book is quite easy to read and interesting, and I enjoyed it the way I probably would have enjoyed the TV series, while having some doubts about the content.

The book has 9 chapters, each relating to an episode of the show. Each chapter has a few black and white photos showing the boss in normal life and in work clothes, and includes 'how we found the boss', a description of the company and its businesses, an outline of the boss's career and why he chose to participate, 5 different undercover jobs, the 'reveal' at the end, and a 'Since the show' section – the last is the bit where the book can add most to the TV show, as there was more than a year between filming and publication. There are also two or three paragraphs headed: 'Producer's Note: What You Didn't See' describing conversations and events which didn't make it into the programme.

I found this a quick and easy read, with any business insights blended with personal stories of employees' personal health and family problems and career ambitions. The undercover bosses generally met lots of star workers who were underrewarded, and in some cases were able to wave a wand and give these people a promotion, or money to buy a franchise or get training and education, all lovely, feelgood stuff.

However, there is a lot more that we don't see than that described in the producer's notes. For example, trade unions and the part they can play in improving pay, terms and conditions and health and safety are never mentioned. Waste Management, the company featured in the first episode, has spent a fortune campaigning against the union, and they have also increased their profits at a time of recession by such moves as cutting spending on workers' pensions. The programmes are designed to show these bosses as nice men (yes, all 9 bosses are male), and it is quite clear that the companies wouldn't participate if the series failed to offer positive PR. There is a whole dark side to the way many such companies operate that a TV programme like Undercover Boss, and the book of the show, are never going to divulge.

Finally, there is a short section offering advice on how to go undercover in your own company. I found this a strange addition, as I'm not sure that this book is really going to be read by such senior executives.

I think this book is worth a look for the general reader interested in workplace politics and human resources, but do add a big pinch of salt. Its accessibility might make it a good supplementary read for students on vocational business courses, to add a bit of colour to dryer textbooks.

Thank you to Jossey-Bass, the publishers, for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Management students might also find Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan interesting, while The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan is a more sceptical look at the subject of business.

Buy Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere by Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman at Amazon.com.


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