Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Undercover Boss

Channel 4 has just finished a re-run of the American version of Undercover Boss, the TV programme based on a senior executive donning a disguise and going to work on some pretext in his (or her) own company and getting new insights into the organisation.

The format is a touch artificial but the contrast between the UK version and the American version is worrying.

The undercover boss in both versions spends a week working in their company – in a different role each day working alongside an “ordinary employee”. I strongly suspect that these employees are chosen by the production team to try and create a “story”. This is where the contrasts start.

In the UK version the employees tend to be more typical of employees within the organisations concerned and this tends to give rise to business issues that the Boss can address when they go back to the day job. Companies that permit (or invite) this programme in have to be fairly confident that major problems will not be found. The issues usually relate to head office – shop floor communication and opportunities for minor process improvements.

In the US version (and to a slightly lesser degree the Canadian version currently being re-run) the employees all seem to have back stories that would rival those of X-factor contestants. The issues found seem to relate to how these employees personal situations relate to the business. The Boss when he gets back to the office tends to turn into a fairy godmother rather than a business executive putting right issues in their company.

And it is here that we get a kind of warning. So many of the US employees’ problems relate to sickness (either of themselves or a family member) and the consequent struggle to care for them and pay the medical bills. I am left with a feeling that those at the bottom of US companies face far greater struggles and insecurity than those at the bottom of UK companies.

The difference? The availability of health care – free at the point of need.

When we get sick the NHS – despite its problems – will more than adequately treat almost all of us (failures create headlines) without fear of crippling costs. When you get sick in the US you can end up selling everything and working two or three jobs to pay bills that are five or even six figure sums. Social care also seems to be minimal – even more so than in the UK.

I find it disturbing that at the end of the programme – the “reveal” – the (US) Boss, now back in their suit, sprinkles fairy dust over the employees who have been the subject of the deception behind this format. He or she then gives these individuals tens of thousands of dollars to pay medical bills and to establish “college funds” for their children. They also tend to cough up for a fancy holiday as well.

Yet it does not seem to occur to the Boss that he or she will have many employees in similar situations – on similar wages (set by the Boss) – who do not receive this largesse.

It leaves me feeling very uncomfortable – but then I believe in social solidarity and social insurance. We need to make sure that our society does not get eroded by the Americanisation that some of our politicians seem to favour. But then they are more “Boss” than “employee”, so probably don’t understand.

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