Undercover Boss premiered on CBS in 2010 and is still going strong today. With over 100 episodes produced and aired, the show has proven to be both popular and eye-opening. The premise sees bosses of large companies go undercover to experience a day in their employees’ shoes. The results almost always see the disguised boss blesses his or her staff with gifts and bonuses at the end of each episode. But what happens after? Has the show ever gotten any bosses in trouble? Read on to learn the truth about one of the most popular reality shows of the last decade!
It’s A Spin-Off Of A British Show
The massively popular of Undercover Boss that airs in the United States is actually based on a British show with the same name. That show first aired in 2009 and came up with the idea of bosses going “undercover” to experience a day in the life of their employees.
The British original series aired until 2014 and consisted of 33 episodes. While that show has since been dwarfed by its American counterpart, it nonetheless was the launching board for the mega-franchise.
The Show Was Inspired By A Public Relations Nightmare
When British Airways Terminal 5 opened, it was a public relations disaster. There were long wait times for passengers, flights were canceled, luggage was lost, and lines were unbearably long. When the CEO was asked if he had ever experienced that he said, “I can’t because people in BA recognize me.”
Stephen Lambert was inspired by this moment, and he came up with an idea. He wondered what it would be like for employers if they could walk around their business without being recognized by their own staff. With that thought, Undercover Boss was born.
Not Every Employee Makes It To Air
Creating an episode of Undercover Boss is a labor of love, and producers and editors end up leaving hours of unused footage on the cutting room floor. Much of the time, this lost footage is of an employee that wasn’t interesting enough to demand screen time.
The show films several employees who do the exact same job then chooses to air the most interesting one. As executive producer Eli Holzman says, “If there are two people who do the exact same job… and one of them as soon as you see them, you laugh uproariously or cry… and the other one it’s crickets and you’re really bored, we’re going to go with the really good one.”
The Show Isn’t Staged
It’s common practice for reality shows to stage certain situations to create drama. With Undercover Boss, staging the drama would take away from the point of the series. Before a boss goes into a location, they are not told which franchise/factory they are going into.
Employees are also not told what to expect, ensuring that reactions on the show are as natural as possible. After all, what’s the point of Undercover Boss if there is nothing undercover about it?
One Boss Fired An Employee During Filming
When Boston Market’s Chief Brand Officer Sara Bittorf went undercover for an episode, she ended up having to make a tough decision. She was so good pretending to be someone else, that one of her coworkers revealed this secret, “I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world. I hate them so much.”
A moment later Bifforf dropped her disguise and fired the employee, saying after, “I can’t have someone who just told me that they hate customers more than anything in the world serving our guests… That’s the complete antithesis of what we stand for.”
Employees Think They’re On A Game Show
Before cameras enter a location, employees for the company being featured are told they are being filmed for a game show or a documentary. At the end of the show, the winning employee will receive their own franchise.
With that lie in place, it becomes easy to plant bosses without giving away what is actually going on. And although employees might not win their own franchises at end of the episode, they usually still end up getting promotions or raises.
Bosses Pick Their Disguises
Part of fooling employees is also making sure their boss is unrecognizable. That’s the “undercover” part of Undercover Boss. These disguises usually involve wigs, facial hair, and body prosthetics — anything needed to successfully hide the identity of the boss.
When bosses go through this disguise process, producers allow them to pick out their own character. Not every disguise ends up being convincing though, and a select few eagle-eyed employees have figured out what was happening before cameras started rolling.
The Rewards Aren’t Always What Audiences Expect
Most rewards bosses give employees at the end of each episode are wholesome — raises, bonuses, or promotions. Not all bosses are created equally though, and one in particular shocked audiences with the reward he handed out.
Doug Guller owns a restaurant called Bikinis that was featured on the show. Servers at the restaurants walk around each shift in… you get the idea. As the episode was ending, Guller offered an employee body enhancement surgery.
Not Every Boss Is Happy About Their Experience
The premise of Undercover Boss is one that leaves bosses exposed to criticism about their own companies. While some bosses embrace the experience, others regret ever choosing to sign up to appear on the show.
Steve Joyce of Choice Hotels International claimed he was set up to look stupid. “They deliberately sabotage you so you don’t do well and you look stupid… They look for something personal to torture you with. For me, my mom had died from Parkinson’s a few years before. And I hadn’t really dealt with it… every chance they got they brought that up.”
One Boss Got Sued After His Episode Aired
Armando Montelongo had a rude awakening after his episode of Undercover Boss aired. The house flipping “guru” was noted for holding programs to teach students how to be successful in his industry.
Over 150 students turned around and sued him for fraud. They claimed his expensive classes didn’t teach anything and he only used them to get money to buy more things. In responding to the lawsuit, Montelongo said they “decided that continuous hard work is not for them.”
There Are Spin-Offs Galore
Undercover Boss was so popular in the UK and the United States that other countries couldn’t help but take notice and produce their own spin-offs. In total, 17 countries have copied the format to create their own versions of the show.
In the United States, the show has branched off into other formats as well, including a celebrity edition. Seven episodes aired and included the famous faces of chef Marcus Samuelsson and musician Darius Rucker.
One Reward Almost Wasn’t Given Out
Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, promised at the end of his episode to give four employees $155,000. As part of the reward, VisitPittsburgh pledged to cover $50,000 of the total. That’s when county controller Chelsa Wagner stepped in.
Wagner held the funds, reminding the mayor that taxpayer money was not supposed to be used for the reward, and VisitPittsburgh was funded through taxes. After a long process, Wagner and Peduto “reached an agreement” and the county controller released the funds.
The Super Bowl Boosted The Show
Every year whichever network hosts the Super Bowl gives one of their shows a boost by airing it directly after. When it was their turn to host the game, CBS decided to air Undercover Boss, which provided the show massive ratings.
The debut episode of Undercover Boss was seen by 38.6 million viewers. In the following weeks, ratings dropped and evened out around 13 million viewers, making it one of the most successful new shows of that television season.
One Fan Got The Surprise Of A Lifetime
Appearing on Undercover Boss leads to some bosses gaining fans. One fan, Aaron Beck, was lucky enough to meet his favorite boss in character. Beck lives with a learning disability and started exchanging letters with Sheldon Yellen after his episode aired.
In 2017, Yellen dressed up as his character from the show and surprised Beck at work. During the meeting, he gifted Beck a signed book that read, “Now that I have finally got to meet you, I know why everyone loves you. Let’s stay in touch and I’ll keep cheering you on. Signed Tom Kelly.”
Sometimes Going Rogue Is A Good Thing
Dan DiZio, the CEO of Philly Pretzel Factory, found out during the show that one of his franchisees had gone rogue and added a pizza pretzel to their menu. The item was a hit, and instead of punishing his employee, DiZio added the item to every chain’s menu!
Other bosses featured on the show used the experience to re-evaluate their company’s policies. Seeing how hard their employees work often led to real improvement with the companies featured.
Bosses Are Sincere About Betterment
For anyone questioning the sincerity of the bosses on the show, executive producer Eli Holzman says:
“It’s something the bosses actually have to be really, really careful about, and they often will spend time really agonizing about [changes to the company] and talking to their people. You’ll often see them at the end of the show meeting once again with that senior staff to reflect on what they have learned, and to implement changes, and to talk about what they want to do.”
The Navy Made Their Own Version
A Navy admiral was such a big fan of Undercover Boss that he decided to try and make his own version. Dave Thomas employed his security detail as a film crew and disguised himself as an E-3 in the Naval Surface Force Atlantic for one day.
His crew wasn’t fooled, but they allowed him to perform everyday tasks with them, including cleaning the rust off the ship’s deck. The “episode” was posted to the force’s Facebook page.
Stephen Lambert Has Had International Success With Other Shows
Famous for creating Undercover Boss, Stephen Lambert is no one-hit-wonder. Another notable show of his that reached an international audience is Wife Swap. The show was actually created before Undercover Boss and ran for seven seasons.
The American version of Wife Swap began airing in 2004 and is still running today after switching networks ABC to Paramount Network. In the show, two married couples from drastically different social backgrounds swap wives for two weeks.
The Show Earned Mixed Reviews
When Undercover Boss premiered in 2010, it was given mixed reviews by critics. The New York Daily News praised the show as, “simple and brilliant… an hour of feel-good television for underappreciated workers.”
The Washington Post was not so kind, declaring “[Undercover Boss] is a hollow catharsis for a nation already strung out on the futility of resenting those who occupy CEO suites.” Ten years later, the show is still receiving mixed reviews, but millions of views continue to tune in regardless.
Celebrity Undercover Boss Wasn’t A Hit
The first two episodes of Celebrity Undercover Boss originally aired as a backdoor pilot during a season of the show. With a positive reception to those episodes, CBS greenlit a full-fledged celebrity edition.
Originally airing in 2018, Celebrity Undercover Boss aired seven episodes and averaged less than five million viewers a week. While CBS never formally announced the cancellation of the show, it has not commissioned new episodes yet, either, indicating an end the poorly rated program.