Executive Careers Blog

Learning From the Undercover Boss

If you saw the past weekend's episode of Undercover Boss, hopefully you're thinking it isn't just about being among your rank and file employees, but about reinvigorating your company's entire HR policy manual.

This week it was White Castle owner Dave Rife's turn at the grunt mill. And while interesting to see how the cheese and jalapeno get placed on 'Castle burgers, I realized that the show wasn't just about a CEO's journey of being part of mere mortals, but also about his getting in touch with some concrete CSR principles besides the obvious humanistic angle.

Let me explain.

What were the main elements that we saw emerge from his interactions with the various staffers? To name a few, employee benefits, job security, employee innovation, leadership and teamwork. And they all form a substantive part of a comprehensive CSR strategy. Once you get beyond the more popularly known definitions of CSR, you realize that as an element of business strategy, being socially responsible includes everything to do with the welfare of your personnel.

Here, then are a few elements that we as CSR advocates, officers, ethicists, HR directors and diversity leaders can take away from the show and hopefully inculcate in the next meeting regarding your HR policies:

Employee Benefits

We see Mr. Rife discussing health care with a worker who suffered from a heart attack recently. He decides that her perseverance and hard work must be rewarded. This principle must resound in the entire culture at your company. Employees who persevere despite setbacks—health-related or otherwise—and focus on marching ahead would be even more productive if they understand how valuable their input is to the company. You then satisfy a key principle of CSR by investing in your key stakeholders and ensuring their loyalty.

Job Security

We are shown White Castle's Rife discussing job security with a supervisor who says she worries about getting fired every day she comes into work! Neurotic? Maybe not. How many of us, especially having barely started to recover from a recession, can say we feel safe in our jobs consistently every day of the year? Vault has conducted several polls in the past year about unemployment numbers and they have shown both fear and speculative worry in your responses. See below for the results of a poll we conducted late last year. A clear effort within a company to address this insecurity can go a long way in employee satisfaction as well as productivity. And we all know, productive workers mean more creativity, innovation and a better bottom line.

Employee Innovation

So, we are shown a heart wrenching clip of "Joe" the drive-thru expert who innovates with his multi-tasking role and manages to not only deliver diners their orders in record time, but also provides excellent customer service in the process. Also, the in-house culinary student with a great gift for creating new recipes! What is our takeaway? Not only that innovation and creativity must be noticed at all levels in the company, but these must be given visible platforms for expression. Understandably there is the argument that not every staffer can be involved in meetings, seminars and conferences where there is room to show off your innovation. However, there is always room for a "Write to us" forum on the company Intranet, there is always room for an open-door policy, and there is always room for modes of direct communication with the executive suite, available to all rank and filers. Can you disagree?

Leadership and teamwork

This is a no-brainer. Companies have instituted leadership training programs for decades now but not all of them produce excellent managers. What is key here is repeated promoting of the more soft skills of work, i.e., communication upwards and downwards, a regular system of meaningful employee feedback, forums where your team can brainstorm on strategy regardless of their role in the corporate hierarchy--you never know who has the best ideas.

Weigh in on the issue here by leaving a comment, or follow Vault's CSR blog In Good Company on Twitter at @VaultCSR! 

And check out Vault’s finance editor, Derek Loosvelt’s take on hypothetical episodes of Undercover Boss set on Wall Street's Lloyd Blankfien of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase.

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Aman Singh is the Corporate Responsibility Editor at Vault.com. She is a New York University alum and previously wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Her area of work includes corporate diversity practices and sustainability, and how they translate into recruitment and strategic development at Fortune 1000 companies.

Comments?  Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com