I learned a few things about going undercover in the workplace today when I came across this article by a business consultant named Eric Egeland.
For one, undercover assessments aren’t exactly management tactics I’ve read, edited or written much about in my years here. Several years back, we ran a story on top managers hitting the front line or manufacturing floor incognito to ferret out internal problems, but I don’t recall learning about the extent to which workplace sleuthing is such a marketable service.
According to Egeland, president of Capacity Consulting Inc., it’s often a lot less sexy and a lot longer-term than what you’d see on TV’s Undercover Boss. “Actually, it’s a lot like surveillance,” he writes. “You watch and listen to a whole lot of nothing for what seems like forever and then, suddenly, you witness something big.” Such as? you might ask. Consider this excerpt:
Over the years we have learned about various seedy activities performed by employees. We have seen employees engage in immoral behavior while requiring subordinates to watch guard. We have seen the most respected member of a management team threaten and assault the employees of an entire department as part of their natural “management style.” We have seen groups of employees in one department band together to undermine another department. We have seen employees purposely provide poor service to customers they didn’t like and brag with a sense of accomplishment after chasing them away. Extreme? Yes, but more common than you think.
On the less dramatic, but just as damaging side are the bookkeepers who really don’t know how to keep the books, employees who get angry about the boss’ new car and retaliate by lowering their productivity, and the snoops who go through the boss’ desk and computer when alone and then brag about it. The part that should surprise and shock you the most is that the overwhelming majority of these examples involve the longest-term and most trusted employees.
Why the long-term employees versus the new employees? The new ones can certainly pull some doozies, but they can’t get away with such nonsense for long. They haven’t been there long enough to have the support and/or fear of the other employees. They do something wrong and the current employees sell them out.
Fascinating … at least to this workplace-snooping novice. Far less dramatic but equally important are the work-process inefficiencies, or the safety and data-breach issues, Egeland says. “We always find improvement opportunities that increase the bottom line,” he writes, “and that is the true value of the undercover assignment whether it’s real life or television.”