Is TV show Undercover Boss a tipping point for engagement? (Guest Commentary)

One executive can't change culture but show raises public awareness of importance of engagement

Years of reading about the importance of engagement and the heap of studies proving its impact on financial results must have finally brought my thinking to a “tipping point” — to borrow a phrase popularized by Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name.

We’ve pretty much reached a point where companies and executives that don’t believe in the value of engagement are just plain dumb. Now, it’s a question of the best way to increase engagement.

This was reinforced by the new reality TV series Undercover Boss, which made its North America debut right after the Super Bowl. The opening show covered the personal learnings of Larry O’Donnell, president and chief operating officer of Waste Management, who spent time on the front line undercover.

The back story — reported in blogs by Steve Tobak, a former Silicon Valley executive and now a consultant who blogs for BNET — is Waste Management, which has 45,000 employees, agreed to do the show to drive home a long-term engagement program with employees.

Cynics responding to that blog refuse to believe the company is serious about improvements or gains are even possible. That rabid, anti-corporation crowd is in sync with many corporate executive disbelievers who still abound.

Skeptics are found on every side of the engagement questions that are raised. Some don’t believe the show is real — it has to have been scripted. Others don’t believe engagement can be improved by the consultants working in the field who are accused of making money off of hot air.

And you can bet there are still plenty of senior executives, of big operations and small, who pooh-pooh the idea engagement has any impact at all and are challenging HR departments to “prove it” before they invest any money in gaining feedback from employees and doing something concrete about it.

Many skeptics correctly noted the show didn’t reveal you need more than just one senior executive solving the problems of four employees to make real change.

I think we may have reached a bit of a watershed moment when a TV show can popularize this concept for a general audience, albeit in an over-dramatized way, and begin to drive it into everyday thinking. It’s rare that HR theories become household discussion topics but this appears to be — finally — one in the making.

Let’s hope a few executives were watching and will pay attention to the subsequent results.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit He is also a regular blogger for Canadian HR Reporter. Want to join the conversation? Visit the blogs section at

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