Scott D. Pierce: 'Undercover Boss' is kinder, gentler reality show

Published: Thursday, Feb. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Larry O'Donnell III, president and COO of Waste Management, is the "Undercover Boss" on Sunday.

Dan Littlejohn, CBS

PASADENA, Calif. — Who would have thought that watching the head of a huge garbage company go undercover and fool his employees could make you feel so darn good?

Weirdly enough, the premiere of CBS's new reality series "Undercover Boss" is actually kind of heartwarming. It's akin to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

The premise is simple enough. The head of a big company pretends to be an entry-level employee in various parts of the company. The real employees have no idea who he/she is.

First up is Lawrence O'Donnell III, the president and COO of Waste Management. He leaves the board room to sort trash; pick up trash; operate a garbage truck; and clean portable toilets.

"One of the main reasons I did this was it gave me an opportunity to get out and learn exactly what some of the issues were out in the field," O'Donnell recently told TV critics. "I spend close to 200 days a year out visiting our field operations, but when I go out as president, that's a different engagement than when I can go out as a brand-new employee in our company. And I learned an awful lot."

And it wasn't easy.

"Certainly, I have an appreciation of what those employees on the front line do each and every day," O'Donnell said. "There's no doubt about it. They've got really tough jobs."

Not only did he learn how hard the jobs are, but he found problems with how the company operates. Like draconian policies on lunch breaks at one site, and how his policy on productivity didn't work as intended.

"It just hit me like a ton of bricks," O'Donnell said. "I was out working a residential route, and I then found out that one of the policies that I had put in place was actually causing a lot of frustration."

In another instance, he discovered that no accommodation had been made for female garbage truck drivers to have access to restroom facilities — resulting in at least one woman being forced to relieve herself in a coffee can.

It turned out to be sort of transformational for O'Donnell.

"There is no doubt about it that I am a different individual having gone through this," he said. "While I've always felt that I am very approachable, and I truly do care about my employees, actually getting out there and doing the job as a first-time employee, I have a whole new appreciation of what they do each day. … Now almost everything I think about, I say, 'OK. What impact could this have on those frontline employees?' "

The show is entirely relatable to anyone who's ever had a job. It's sort of wish fulfillment, in a way — the Big Boss learns what the Little Guys go through, and discovers there's a lot he doesn't know.

And there's a second set of storylines as the Big Boss finds Unsung Heroes within his company — people who deserve a little help, a big thank you or even a promotion.

There's even an element that's almost "Candid Camera"-esque. At the end of the hour, the employees who worked with their "Undercover Boss" are brought to the corporate headquarters to learn the truth.

It'll bring a smile to your face and, yes, warm your heart a bit.

Whether Episode 2 — featuring the president and CEO of Hooters — can be as heartwarming … we'll just have to wait to find out.

After the Super Bowl

"Undercover Boss" premieres Sunday on CBS/Ch. 2 at approximately 8 p.m. MT. That's after the Super Bowl and the post-game show, so exactly when the hourlong show will air depends on how the game goes.

"Boss" will air in its regular time slot on Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m.

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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