“Undercover Boss” star pleased with portrayal … pretty much

Waste Management President Larry O'Donnell appears on "Undercover Boss"

Last night’s post-Super Bowl airing of Undercover Boss pulled in over 38 million viewers, the best for that time slot since 2001.

Incidentally (or not) it was another reality offering — the premiere of the second season of Survivor — that was the last to pull in those kinds of ratings. But instead of cutthroat gamesmanship, Undercover Boss offered an uplifting vision of nameless, faceless corporate bigwigs finally developing empathy for their underlings.

Waste Management President and COO Larry O’Donnell posed as a regular employee in his own company, going from task to task, in order to see how the policies he had a part in creating were handled in practice.

O’Donnell seems a genuine guy, far from the fat cat stereotype associated with high-level corporate execs, and has a compelling personal story involving a special-needs daughter that make him an easily empathetic figure. But even he was shocked by the difference between his insulated view of how the company functioned compared with what he saw in the field — including female route drivers not being provided a place to use the restroom while striving to make company-mandated goals; employees being threatened with their pay being docked for clocking in late after lunch; and deep personnel cuts leading to overworked, underpaid employees. It all led to one contrite executive who sought to make things right by episode’s end.

So beyond being thrilled about getting a better understanding of his company, and the stratospheric-level of publicity generated by the show, what did O’Donnell think of the show? I caught up with him at the annual press tour in Pasadena recently, and while he said the experience was overwhelmingly positive, reality TV is never all that it seems.

Did the show accurately portray your experience?

Larry O’Donnell: There were certainly a couple of things — the whole thing on the time clock really bothered me. Because as it turned out … no employee’s pay had been docked. It was a miscommunication. That’s all it was. We needed to fix it. …  [That plant’s] operation is one of our best now. We recognize them through our metrics that we measure, we compare everybody against each other, and they were actually our best operation. I really felt bad for [the plant manager].

What was left out that you wish had been included?

I wish that they would have had a couple of the jobs I did involved our renewable energy. We make enough energy to power about 1 million homes. I would have liked to have gotten that in there, because a lot of people don’t know that about us. It would have been really neat if that had made the final cut, but I know they are trying to get the whole show into a very tight time place.

I also didn’t feel like our senior management team were portrayed the way they really are. They are very engaging. But when they start editing … all the discussions we had, they’ve got to take that stuff out and you’re kind of left with, I walk in the room, everybody looks at each other like, ‘What in the world is he talking about?’ and I leave. That’s really not how we operate at all.


Photo: Dan Littlejohn/CBS ©2009 CBS Broadcasting Inc.