No Need to Go Under Cover: Practical strategies keep executives ‘in the know’

By: Barbara Bowes

Most readers are familiar with the highly popular TV show, Undercover Boss, now seen in Canada, England and the United States. Each episode features either a senior executive and/or business owner of a large corporation who goes undercover as a front-line employee in their own company. The executive wears a disguise, adopts an alias and background and then spends one week working various jobs. In most episodes, the executive also changes locations. During the week, the executive experiences all the trials and tribulations of front-line workers and really gets to see first-hand what is working well and what is not.

In most of the episodes I’ve personally watched, the executives appear quite shocked at the many little process challenges a front-line worker is confronted with. As well, the experience seems to be a real “eye opener” as the executive learns how some of their corporate policies negatively impacted the front-line workers. At the same time, the undercover executive gets to meet both excellent as well as poorly disciplined employees and learns a great deal about the corporate leadership style and front-line working conditions.

Yet, as you might expect, it would be difficult and impractical for most executives to go “under cover” in order to find out what’s going on at the front line. However, staying in touch with what is really going on in your organization is very important and even more so since executives are commonly located in corporate offices, famously known as the “ivory tower.”

However, that’s no excuse for ignoring and/or avoiding the important task of knowing your employees, understanding what’s happening throughout your organization and keeping your finger on the pulse of employee engagement. So, if that’s the case, what are some strategies that can be employed to help executives get “in the know” and stay connected with workers at all levels of their organization? The following tips have proven successful in many organizations.

Employee engagement surveys — Many organizations are investing significant dollars on diagnostic surveys that ask employees to identify issues perceived to be problematic. These surveys often run between 40-80 questions inquiring about leadership style, organizational communication, organization culture or job satisfaction amongst others. However, conducting the survey is one thing; doing something with it is another. Leaders shouldn’t undertake an employee survey unless they are willing to hear what is going to be said and be willing to do something about it. You must be prepared to share the results, present a plan for overcoming the barriers that have been raised and then taking action. If you fail to do that, you will have lost all opportunity to build the desired relationships with your staff.

Manage by walking around — While managing by walking around may sound old fashioned, it’s still very powerful and engages front-line employees in casual, friendly conversation. Know your employees’ names and use them. Focus the conversation on the employees by asking about families, activities, education or sports while at the same time being sensitive to personal privacy. Be sure to distribute your time fairly within the organization as you can easily be seen as favouring one department over another.
Be open and available — If you’ve successfully developed an informal relationship with employees and developed personal comfort, they’ll have no hesitation stopping by your workspace for a quick hello and a chat. Take a few moments and listen. If an employee offers a suggestion, ask them to investigate it further and return to share it with others. This approach helps to build skills, includes individuals in change and helps to build self-confidence. At the same time, you might find a “diamond in the rough” that you can develop as time goes on.

Ask for suggestions — Pull out that old-fashioned suggestion box and incorporate the idea into your workplace intranet system. Take the suggestions seriously. Acknowledge receipt and identify what the next steps will be. Perhaps meet with the employee to get more information as to why the suggestion was made and how their suggestion might impact operational systems.
Praise success — Most suggestions once implemented save the organization significant dollars. Plan to communicate the success to a broad audience. Name and profile the employee who made the suggestion and confirm the level of impact the suggestion has had on the organization. Reward the employee appropriately.

Be creative with reward and recognition — Meaningful rewards don’t have to be big public affairs. In fact, most employees would simply appreciate a personal thank you, tickets to a hockey game or a concert or a family night out at a restaurant. Organize a monthly president’s breakfast with a select group of employees and have a conversation. No matter what the reward and recognition initiatives you start, the important thing is to stick with it. Starting a new initiative and then not following through will only serve to create unwanted negativity.

Develop a sense of connection — If possible, hold full staff meetings monthly or quarterly to bring employees up to date on organizational happenings. Invite managers to share news from their department. Invite employees to share something good happening in their lives. Announce job changes, new employee backgrounds, marriages, births or other good news.
Create opportunities for social interaction — Many employees are involved in community service groups whose work could be enhanced through the workplace. Set up internal groups that support ongoing initiatives and create opportunities for individual employees to participate. Get employees involved a fun activity to raise money for a selected cause.

Invest in training and development — Opportunities for training and development demonstrate employees are valued and this creates a strong sense of belonging and loyalty. At the same time, employees will be upgrading their technical skills and learning new skills to enhance their career. All in all, employee development will lead to increased productivity and quality while at the same time strengthening morale and team spirit.

Address problems quickly — Nothing damages employee morale more quickly than a leader who procrastinates and/or avoids conflict. After awhile, employees will stop bringing issues forward because nothing is done about them. Create an organizational culture where employees are taught how to assess problems, discover the impact on the organization, offer a set of solutions and make a recommendation. This way, the employee has done his/her thinking rather than “dumping” a problem on the leader. Employees then feel they have more of an impact on their organization and their voice is heard and valued.

While it might be an interesting experience, most leaders shouldn’t need to be an “under cover” boss in order to keep their finger on the pulse of their organization. The simple initiatives stated above, if applied consistently will help you to create a sense of community amongst your employees. This in turn creates a culture of trust, in which employees feel valued and operational problems are identified and rectified quickly.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at Learn more at