‘Undercover Boss,’ The New CBS Hit, Has Profound Effect

by | March 30, 2010 at 10:58 AM | Reality, RealityTV, TV News, Undercover Boss

Michael G. Rubin the Chairman, President and CEO GSI Commerce on Undercover Boss. (CBS)

Michael G. Rubin the Chairman, President and CEO GSI Commerce on Undercover Boss. (CBS)

“Reality TV? No way!”

That was the reaction of Michael Rubin, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of GSI Commerce, when his public relations department suggested he participate on the new CBS series, ‘Undercover Boss.

“There’s no way I’m doing that,” Rubin told his team.

Then Rubin saw clips from the series premiere featuring Waste Management President and C.O.O. Larry O’Donnell working alongside his employees, cleaning porta-potties and picking up garbage, and he had a change of mind.

“After watching, I was like wow, I’d love to do this,” Rubin says. “It would be great for me on so many levels.”

And it was. On March 21, Rubin appeared in the sixth episode of ‘Undercover Boss,’ and the next day he was deluged with hundreds of emails and phone calls from friends and clients. Rubin, who founded his company as a teenager and turned it into a multi-million dollar business with 5,000 full-time employees (double that number over the holidays), was still dealing with the reaction when Fancast.com caught up with him early that evening.

“I’m overwhelmed by all the nice comments,” he says. “And the questions. People want to know if it was fake. It wasn’t.”

“I went into this thinking, hey, I’m 37 years old, a young guy, I’ll be able to do great at all these jobs,” he continues. “I’m the founder of the company. But as I found out, and as people saw, these jobs are significantly more difficult than I had thought. I got fired off one job, and I got demoralized plenty of other times.”

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Therein lies the appeal of ‘Undercover Boss,’ a show that appears to have a profound effect on both participants and viewers. In the case of viewers, who doesn’t want to see the boss get a taste of management’s own medicine (and, in the end, reveal a new compassion to employees)? Since its debut following the Super Bowl, the series has been among TV’s highest rated programs. Upwards of 15 million people have spent their Sunday nights watching the heads of White Castle, 7-Eleven and Churchill Downs and other major companies have experiences similar to Rubin. It’s clearly touched a nerve.

“[The show] isn’t spectacular TV,” wrote the New York Daily News. “But its real appeal lies in the exercise itself: watching a CEO meet actual workers and realize they work hard at jobs often made harder by petty rules and policies.” The Boston Herald called it “a wonderful tribute to the working man and woman.” And none other than social commentator Arianna Huffington wondered if ‘Undercover Boss’ might not be “the most subversive show on television.”

“I’m not suggesting that the show is going to foment a working class rebellion or directly lead to a raft of social reforms,” she said. “But it might lead to a conversation we, as a nation, desperately need to have — especially in Washington.”

Indeed, Rubin calls the experience “profound.” For him, going undercover was a chance to “jump into things and see how they work.” It was an opportunity to “see what happened on the ground floor” in a different way. “Ordinarily when I do facility visits, I get power point presentations, so this was exciting,” he says. “I also knew our employees would love it, too.”

Did you have any reservations?
To be honest, no, I didn’t. I knew we had a great company with great people. At the same time, I did sign a release giving up control to the network. It was a leap of faith.

How long did you go undercover? What was the shooting schedule? It was a nine or 10 day process, and long days. The days lasted about 16 hours.

Was it as tough as it looked?
Tougher. I went into this thinking I’m 20 years younger than any of the other CEOs who’ve been on the show, and I’m the founder of the company. I’ll be able to go in and do great. What I didn’t expect was that these jobs would be so difficult and I’d get beat up doing them. After four hours on the first day, my knees were throbbing with pain. I was hurting.

You were packing boxes. You were stacking boxes. You can see that I gave it my best effort, and it was hard. I’m not in horrific shape, but I felt like it.

In the episode, Rubin worked a variety of jobs, including answering customer service phones, handling customer complaints, fulfilling orders, and loading boxes on a truck. His efforts paled in comparison to his more practiced employees, even those who’d only been on the job a few weeks. And because the situations were produced for a prime time television show, the individuals he met all had work habits and stories that affected him – some good and at least one negatively.

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Michael, was any of this show faked? A lot of people have asked me that question. It couldn’t have been more real. For me, it was like an out of body experience. In fact, I called my mom and my wife a couple times at night and told them about some of the people I’d met and the fun I was having. Even it never made it on TV, it would’ve been an experience that I would’ve always valued.

What situations touched you? You see them on the show. A guy like Adam, who every day is handling escalations at the call center, which is a really difficult job, and he does it so well. And then I heard his personal situation, and I was like the business part doesn’t even matter; this guy just had an exemplary spirit, great character.

I was impressed by Rachel, who was relatively new on the job and yet…
I know. She’s three weeks into the job and knew so much about the company. And then there was Shannon, who was working her butt off and at the same time dealing with family issues. And she had such pride and spirit, and was doing so well. On the job, they put me to shame. At the same time they made me proud. It was great to see.

Rubin saw the show the night it aired, watching it with his wife and four-year-old daughter, who fell asleep before it aired (it was delayed because a basketball game went into overtime). His wife’s thoughts? “She finally got to see what I’d tried to describe as I was going through it,” says Rubin. “it’s one thing to tell someone about an experience, and it’s another thing when they can see it.”

Can any good come from a show like this – the kind of good that Arianna Huffington meant when she talked about the gap between CEOs and workers? At peak season, we employ ten thousand people, which means I’m going to touch those people’s lives in some way, so I better have some awareness of what’s going on in their work environment, not just mine. And I can tell you that I’m a better CEO as a result of this experience. That alone is significant.

Can you give me a more concrete example of how this has affected you and GSI? Actually, I just left a four-hour econo-services executive meeting and one of the things we’re doing is creating a new program called “A Day In The Life,” where our senior leaders are going to work a week in the call center. I want the other executives to have the same experience I had.

And that idea grew out of the show? Yeah, I left the call center that first day, called the office and said, “This is what we’re doing.”

‘UNDERCOVER BOSS’ AIRS SUNDAY NIGHTS AT 9 PM ON CBS.