Monday, March 21, 2011

Secret Millionaires and Undercover Bosses

Have you heard there's a new reality television show called "Secret Millionaire"? The premise is that rich folks go live incognito amongst the needy for a few days, and at the big reveal, shower some money onto the poor wretches with whom they were cohabitating. Cue the swelling music at the end of the show, as the magnanimous millionaires climb back on their timeshare jets and leave the temporarily enriched wretches, once again, to themselves.

It is unfair of me to write this, I suppose, without having watched the show even once. However, I have made a pledge to stop yelling at the television set like it is a Hummer that just stole my parking space at the mall. So I'm judging this on website press materials only, and even those had me worked up into a lather. 

True, as these millionaires take what the show calls "soul-shaking journeys," viewers are exposed to dedicated volunteers, deserving organizations, and inspiring models of community involvement. Of course the monetary support provided by the millionaire to the soup kitchen or educational program or homeless shelter at the end of the show is a positive.

But why are we applauding the Secret Millionaires for applying a bandaid to a patient who is terminally ill, and then running away from the hospital? Unless what the millionaires are doing is going to effect long-term structural change that reduces the need for those soup kitchens or educational supports or shelters, I'd prefer to keep my hands folded in my lap, thank you. 

The show "Undercover Boss," which I actually have watched, bothers me for similar reasons. A C-level boss in disguise- it usually involves the shaving off or growing of a mustache, and the wearing of a baseball hat - shadows a few clueless employees to get an inside view of working conditions. (Note to all employees: if a guy shows up unexpectedly at your job and says he is a trainee or a contest winner and will work with you for the next 8 hours, don't bad-mouth the front office while he's hanging out with you.) Then he changes into a three piece suit and announces to his shocked and delighted audience of employees what he has learned. 

Inevitably, the boss contributes some money for one of his employee's kids to go to college. He covers the outstanding medical bills of another. And then there's some version of, "You guys who work the parking lots: from now on you'll have a port-a-potty, instead of having to hold it for your whole shift!" or some other tiny gesture that seems, really, like it should have been taken a long time ago.

I always worry that there is an employee in the crowd kicking himself, because if it had just been his day to work the 7-11 coffee pots when the big boss was there,  maybe his daughter's medical care could have been covered.

Perhaps the boss could have just spent some time with his HR team reviewing medical coverage provided to all employees, to figure out how they could improve it across the board. Now, that would garner some genuine emotion in the crowd shots. 

Since we seem to accept that in 2011, severe government budget cuts are inevitable to programs that help the poor, the long-term unemployed, the infirm, and children, but that tax breaks for the rich are sacrosanct, here's another thought. Let's set up a show called "Help Me! No, Really! Help Me!" It could be like a Dating Game between millionaires - and there are more of them in America than ever, according to a recent MarketWire news item - and the destitute. 

Through a series of vetting questions to contestants hidden behind a screen, one of the 8.4 millionaires in this country could choose a poor person to support, maybe covering car payments so the poor person can drive to his crappy minimum-wage-no-benefits-part-time job. Then the poor person could in turn make a series of tv and radio promo spots in which they talk about how awesome their patron is. It could be just like the Medici era, only without the art output.

Or - and I'm just spitballing here - some of those 8.4 million could think about throwing their energy and funds behind efforts that would soften the stark, black line between the haves and have-nots in America. Maybe encourage the lobbying organizations and politicians that represent their interests and live off their contributions to work with, not against, improved public education, universal healthcare, etc - the things that would make meaningful and lasting changes to the people who they're so purportedly interested in helping on Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss. 

That might not be as "soul-shaking" for them as a network TV appearance, but I promise: the rest of us would feel it a whole lot more.


  1. Tremendous post, Nancy. Among the many many issues I have with both of these shows -- including, as you have noted above, the band-aid approach, the randomness of the "generosity" being handed down from above, & the often minor (port-a-potty-ish) acts of benevolence -- what is most stunning to me is the willingness of supposed captains of industry to freely admit they have no real idea what it is that their employees actually, ya know, *DO*.

    I understand that we have long since abandoned the expectation that our corporate leaders recognize & respect the dignity of their employees -- but when exactly did we decide we needed to celebrate those noble few who realize they employ actual humans who do actual work?

    If I had any pull in the corporate world, I would ensure that all of my management folk participate in endeavors like Undercover Boss, but with one significant twist. Anyone who was in any way shocked, stunned or otherwise surprised to learn that the people on the bottom of the org chart work ridiculously hard for little pay & even less respect would be fired on the spot.

    On a closing note, I thought for sure that my favorite line in this post was going to be the one about U.B. almost always involving a C-level boss shaving off or growing a mustache. But then I read, "It could be just like the Medici era, only without the art output."

    As I wrote a few paragraphs ago, "tremendous." :-)

  2. Amen Sister! The few times I've seen the promo for the millionaire show my stomach has flipped. Brilliant piece of writing.

  3. Yes we all know life is unfair but do we have to take it this far? Loved this piece. It IS a ridiculous show.


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