LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Larry O'Donnell may be president of a Fortune 200 company. But the Waste Management chief operating officer got fired on his first day in a humble job picking up trash when working for his own organization.
A rare television series set in the real-life workplace, "Undercover Boss" hits U.S. airwaves this Sunday, February 7, putting executives to work in everyday jobs in an era when many companies are cutting budgets and employees are working harder for the same pay, or less.
"Anybody who has had a boss, or who has worked in a company, will understand this show," said executive producer Stephen Lambert. "And for the person in charge, to be able to see what their employees are really doing seemed like an exciting idea."
The first show in the CBS documentary-reality series features O'Donnell and Waste Management Inc, the leading provider of garbage collection and recycling services in North America with some 45,000 employees.
Future episodes will show senior executives of restaurant chain Hooters, convenience chain 7-Eleven, Inc, family-owned hamburger chain White Castle and horse-race track company Churchill Downs Inc removing their pin-striped suits and getting down and dirty, anonymously, with their own workers.
For O'Donnell, that meant a week of long, unsocial hours cleaning filthy portable toilets, riding a residential garbage truck and joining a fast-moving sorting line in a Waste Management recycling facility.
Among his more eye-opening moments was garbage truck driver Janice, who has to urinate in a bottle on her rounds because she has no time or place for a proper bathroom break.
"Actually getting out there and doing the job as a first time employee, I have a whole new appreciation of what they do each day," said O'Donnell, who adopted a beard and eyeglasses disguise to work alongside a handful of his workers.
"They've got really tough jobs. They work long hours. They start their day at all hours of the morning."
And then there was the basic job of picking up trash on a windy hillside. After O'Donnell saw his haul repeatedly blown away, he was told by his supervisor not to bother coming back.
"It's the first time I have ever been fired, and even though I knew I really wasn't fired, I'm competitive and that really, really bothered me," he said.
At the end of each show, employees are rewarded with praise or sometimes scolded. Work schedules are adjusted, orders from the boardroom often modified and promotions may be in hand.
O'Donnell said the experience had forced him to adjust some of his company's efficiency measures and to include front line workers more in corporate decision making.
"It is so important to keep that communication line open, and it's difficult when you have that many layers between yourself and the front line.
"If you are trying to improve your company, who's the best person to go ask? The people who are facing the problems. Most of the time they've got in their heads some pretty good solutions."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte