The 1% Meets the 99% on “Undercover Boss”

2011 brought to the forefront a clash between the 1% and the 99%, between those who earn a high income and those on the lower end of the spectrum. As tends to happen when we define human beings by labels, things got acrimonious with each side accusing the other of being motivated either by greed or socialism. With all the media coverage and ongoing rancor, it was hard not to take sides in this debate.

That’s why it was a pleasant surprise to watch a preview episode of the CBS series “Undercover Boss” which airs this Sunday, January 22 at 8:00pm Eastern/Pacific. The reality show, which premiered in 2011, follows different business leaders each week as they adopt a disguise and false identity to observe the inner workings of the companies they run and the people who work for them. I hadn’t watched the show before, but couldn’t help but look at it through the lens of what has transpired in light of the Occupy movement. Instead of groups hurling insults at each other, this show presented actual human beings – both corporate executive and regular employees – who care about their jobs, companies and families, trying to do their best for everyone involved.

The “Undercover Boss” in the Jan. 22 episode is Dina Dwyer-Owens, chairwoman and CEO of The Dwyer Group which owns and runs a number of home improvement and repair companies. Dwyer-Owens is a wife and Mom whose commitment to certain core values that leave customers with a positive impression of their companies comes across as sincere and effective. Her commitment to her Catholic faith is also portrayed as Dwyer-Owens attends Mass at St. Louis church in Waco, Texas, where the priest gives her a special blessing. Then the CEO dons a wig and pearls (an admittedly odd choice for working in home improvement), and gets to know the people who work for her by saying she’s part of a fake reality show profiing people who are considering changing careers.

Dwyer-Owens first gets placed with Wayne, a Master Plumber at a Mr. Rooter franchise. His inherent manners and decency combined with his strong work ethic quickly win over his undercover boss. And Dwyer-Owens wins over Wayne because she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty on their plumbing job changing a 180-pound water heater. During a conversation, Wayne reveals he has a five-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son named Malachi who can’t speak because he has non-verbal autism. He admits the irony of this Biblical name because it means “my messenger.” Wayne then says he has a sentimental attachment to working for Mr. Rooter because his father worked for them, but  that there’s also a lot of “misery” caused to the workers because of how the franchise is run behind-the-scenes. Specifically, the employees work on commission and don’t always get paid the full amount they’re owed. Wayne can’t help but think something “shady” is going on. Dwyer-Owens is so bothered by this that she excuses herself and calls the home office to have them look into what’s going on with the paychecks at this particular franchise and make sure it’s corrected.

Dwyer-Owens works with three other employees: Jake, a Team Leader with The Grounds Guys landscaping company; Brock, a Mr. Electric franchise owner; and Tanna, a female service technician with Mr. Appliance. With the exception of some poor choices by Brock, all the employees profiled are honest, hard-working people who are committed to their jobs and their families. And Dwyer-Owens – far from being the stereotypical uncaring, selfish corporate executive – reveals herself to be a boss whose concern about her employees and their well-being beyond the job site is genuine. At the end of the show, she reveals her identity to all of them and even doles out some surprises which you’ll have to watch the show to discover.

What I found refreshing  is the episode’s depiction of individuals who are at opposite ends of the financial spectrum, and how their values aren’t all that different. Of course, not every employee or boss is as noble or virtuous as the ones highlighted (as evidenced by the financial shenanigans that Wayne referenced). But neither are all employees and bosses as selfish or heartless as news coverage sometimes suggests. We’re all fallible human beings capable of good and bad choices. This episode of “Undercover Boss” is an excellent example of people who make good choices. Their behavior can be a model for the 100%.

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