Gouri Dange: Head Honcho’s Day Out

04 Jan,2012

By Gouri Dange


I don’t tear up (fancy word for cry foolishly) watching anything on TV or in the movies usually. Close friends sit around pulling on their box of tissues even while watching TV ads, for godsake, and I usually smirk and talk loftily and alliteratively about manipulation of the mind by the media and other such airy stuff.


Weepy Indian soaps, saas-bahu dramas in Hindi and Marathi, I catch only by accident when my finger touches the wrong buttons on the remote; and when I then see a screen-wide shot of large reddened cow-eyes, mascara fake lashes shimmering with tears, I only guffaw and cringe.


But here I am, sniffling after every episode of Undercover Boss. Why, oh why? People around me ask. But they’re quite touched too, I can see.


First a little about the format: in each episode (on BBC Entertainment) the CEO or owner of a big corporation goes on to his shopfloor or into the field, incognito as an entry-level employee, spending one week doing the rounds with ‘lower rung’ staff. He changes his appearance, and since the corporations are huge (45,000 employees, etc) and have far-flung operations, none of the staff that he interacts with are likely to recognize him.


The explanation given for the accompanying camera is that a film is being made on entry-level workers. The boss works in various areas of the company operations, at different locations. This way, he gets to interact closely with the lower and middle order in his corporation.


Invariably, his 7-day outing is an eye-opener for him, one day at a time. The episode is dotted with poignant as well as really funny interactions, as he gets to see and work the system himself. He himself is often bad at doing what they do, invariably needs help, and is sometimes declared unemployable by the supervisor he may be working with!


He meets employees who soldier on in spite of serious health or personal issues, he sees some of the absurd outcomes of his own policies, made far away in corporate settings. He is, to use a cliché, humbled by his own people as he goes along with them on their daily rounds.


At the end of his week undercover, the head honcho returns to his corporate HQ, and calls a handful of the employees who he feels are doing a particularly good job under trying circumstances. He first reveals his true identity to them, much to their shock and amusement, as they recall how frank and ‘themselves’ they have been around him, when they thought he was just a newbie. He also calls in a few link-men in the chain, who need to change something in order for some policies or attitudes or daily circumstances to change for the better.

The hard-working, cheerful, resourceful employees are then rewarded with promotions, or bonuses, while some employees are given training or better working conditions. Sometimes, the boss will step right out of the groove and help with a personal problem, or even better, turn the person’s coping skills into something of use to the company itself.


For instance, one employee who undergoes dialysis every week, and yet works hard and happily, is also given time off to volunteer at a hospital which is something he wants to do – here he becomes a shining example of the benefits of positivity and good work.

A simple ‘go-cart’ may be given to some employee who legs it from one building to the other far too many times a day in a large factory compound. More budget allocations are made, as the Boss learns experientially, that his operations just cannot always be about maximizing profits and minimizing down time. When he communicates this to his Board, you can see some faces thaw, some faces tighten; it is very interesting to see those reactions too.


Undercover Boss UK episodes are restrained, and I hoped that the US ones would not be simplistic and manipulative; luckily they are not. Now you’re free to call me a Hopeless Romantic, but what slays me each time is the profoundly shaken look on the Boss’s face, many times during his undercover week. The other thing that has me reaching for someone’s tissue box (I don’t own one, perhaps I need to, now) is the changing look on an employee’s face – from guarded, restrained listening, to a shy child-like slow flush or grin. This changed expression comes up when he/she realizes that someone has watched them closely as they do sometimes mind-numbing jobs (either monotonous, or plain icky, including non-flushing toilets), appreciated their work, and is following up with not just a perfunctory pat-on-the-back, but with change and rewards. There are also often frank and forthright apologies from the Boss for being blind to many things in his own company and his people.


When everyone in an interaction becomes a little more human, I tend to come undone. Of course, the program has QUITE a few ad breaks, and that becomes the Brechtian device that alienates you nicely, so that you never get too caught up and carried away, fortunately or unfortunately.

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2 responses to “Gouri Dange: Head Honcho’s Day Out”

  1. Upstairs-Downstairs says:

    Yup; in highly technical jargon, you’d be called a hopeless romantic — of the kind that wants right things to happen: bosses to be accessible and humane, people to be rewarded for good deeds or a strong work ethic, etc.
    Doesn’t happen in real life much, does it?
    And what about India? Wonder if a Tata or an Ambani would ever stoop to rolling up his sleeves and working with the factory worker and be willing to take on board his pain?

    • Gouri Dange says:

      willing or not, i wonder if ANY ambani or tata employee however lowly would NOT know what they boss looks like…that would be a problem pulling off this. perhaps in very large public sector corporations, it could happen. where the big man is also not slavishly reported on and featured all the time by the media (which he himself feeds!)