Undercover Boss is a television series which has the head of a large company take an entry-level position at one of their locations, there to witness what is actually happening in the factory, at a franchise, at a retail store. It debuted in 2009 both in the United States and the United Kingdom, and since then has been adapted to many other countries.
60 Minutes and other investigative journalism shows occasionally attempt to get workers into entry-level positions to witness what is actually happening at a company, as opposed to what the press releases say is happening.
It seems inevitable that the two concepts would meet… that an undercover boss would bump into an undercover journalist at the same location. That pairing has happened, in China, but not in the expected way.
China Central Television presents a yearly show, The World Consumer Rights Day program. It’s popularly known as the 315 show because it’s held on March 15, and features reports from investigators who have been undercover in various businesses to uncover economic malfeasance and fraud. They go after the largest of businesses, having previously aired exposes resulting in public apologies from Apple and Volkswagen.
This year’s show included a segment by Lao K., who revealed that a popular Carmax-style used car dealership chain was systematically charging more for their cars than the actual value. There was no doubt about their actions: he had plenty of documentation to demonstrate the activity, and there was no doubt about the validity of the documentation.
Lao K. (real name and face unrevealed) had been given the assignment to investigate the dealership years before, and had been hired as a salesman. He wasn’t especially good, but he was competent enough to last for a few months and get a look at how things worked on the sales floor. What he saw there was disappointing: no evidence of illegal activity.
Convinced he was right about the wrongdoing, but unable to get any proof from his position as a salesman, he poured on the effort, striving to fill a low-level managerial position where he might have greater access to records. To his surprise, he found he had a natural gift for managerial work. Not only did he get the low-level position, his organizational skills, demonstrated work ethic and astute decisions earned him a promotion. Then another one. Then another one. With each elevation, he received more money, greater benefits… and additional access to the company’s records.
By the time this year’s 315 show debuted, Lao K was making far more as a vice-director (the equivalent of a vice president, in a US company) of the business than he was as a reporter, and he had a personal staff of more than a dozen people. It was impossible to refute his reporting.
While most of the leadership has issued a public apology for their larcenous activity, Lao K. was not among them… he’s gone on to a new undercover assignment at another company. Time will tell if he can live up to the high standard he’s set for himself.
Question of the night: have you had any memorably bad bosses?