Undercover Boss, the CBS show based on a British program of the same name that began airing in the United States in 2010, may have been the programming decision that was most responsive to the recession. By disguising the CEOs and other top executives of major American corporations and sending them out to the front lines of their organizations, Undercover Boss played to the fantasy of showing your employer what your life is really like and how hard your work really is. At a time when executives can seem impossibly distant from the average worker and from viewers at home, Undercover Boss makes CEOs seem accessible—and sometimes, the boss’s experiences end up translating into company-wide changes in policy. Such was the case at Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, where president Rick Tigner went undercover and into the company’s fields and processing facilities in an episode of the show that aired last weekend. I talked to Mr. Tigner at the Television Critics Association press tour about what he learned about immigration reform, sustainable wine production, and being the face of a major company at a time when America doesn’t love CEOs—and why he decided to start a language program for his workers and give them more vacation time. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you decide to go on the show in the first place?
Caroline here, who works for the company, she was actually researching how to, you know, give an award to one of our employees. And so she was going on the CBS site, they have some sort of employee-recognition program, and with that she saw the Undercover Boss program and then connected the two. And really, I think as a company, you know, our culture of helping employees and understanding their story just connected.
You came on the show after going through a rough period, you mentioned through ’08 and ’09. Was there a sense that this was sort of a positive way to show that you were coming back or to show that you were reaching out?
It’s interesting. When you go through a difficult time and you have, you know, lay-offs, or we call right-sizing or downsizing…The reality was is that, you know, we still want to do the right things for our employees…When the show was offered to us, you know, it would have been a great thing for us to help the morale of the company.
Now you said when you went on the show that you found that some of your directives hadn’t made it all the way down the chain of command.
When I did the show, there’s always these concepts of “Do people understand that it’s quality first?” You know, it’s one of our visions and values…But on that one division—our distribution and trucking division— you know, that part had not gotten through. You know, so there was a management issue, I think, or communication issue there…the management is not necessarily overwhelmed, but just they were so busy trying to drive that business, so that some of the level of service at the driver level, they kind of lost sight of it…I worked with an employee who actually, you know, I would argue—maybe not the most stellar employee on that particular day. He also just had a bad day, you know. Didn’t mean he was a bad guy, and doesn’t mean he can’t be a great employee.
One thing I thought was interesting that you mentioned was finding you had some communications issues with your Spanish-speaking workers. You said that wasn’t something that had occurred to you before. How much did you know about the actual sort of ethnic composition of your workforce?
I have a very good understanding of the composition, but I really probably had not enough knowledge that our frontline managers didn’t have the ability to communicate with them. Now, the person I worked with was one, a new employee, and a young employee, so she hasn’t had enough time or experience necessary to learn Spanish. She might have over time. Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot of other people who are frontline managers in production who speak Spanish. But the reality is we have some that don’t…Being someone who I think—I always think I’m a pretty good communicator, who had the inability to communicate on my very first day I did the show. I was like, “Wow, this is a problem.” But it’s a problem that’s addressable…
I can’t make you learn another language. It’s difficult. I can’t force you to do it. You have to want to do it…It’s been six months since the show. And right now we’re just in the process of implementing the whole project because it took time to hire the training manager, to get all of the Rosetta Stone licenses, to work on the tuition payments because we’re doing more than just one type of training… And then also for the Spanish-speaking employees, who actually get paid, you know, throughout the day, we’re doing it during the work hours versus making them stay after work to do it. But the English-speaking management employees, they do their day jobs, and then they stay later because it’s sort of optional for them.
That must have been an interesting program to implement at a time when there is a lot of conversation about immigration reform.
It sort of all ties together. Because the one value you have today is labor. And labor’s getting tougher to get. So, especially during harvest time, right? When you can sometimes use field labor contractors or you could use your own laborer. But we want to improve our laborer force. You know, in regards to creating jobs, you know, through ’07 and ’08 we laid off some farm workers. Well, we’re hiring back, right as we speak, about another thirty farm workers today…Because we need that skilled labor person to work in our wineries and in the fields.
Was there anything you did that you found physically difficult? I mean, I wonder, or just emotionally difficult?
Here’s a guy—interesting experience with him—he goes out on a truck everyday and drives three-hundred miles. He delivers, you know, two hundred cases off the back of a truck. They weigh forty-five pounds each, right. Day after day after day, he’s got to like what he’s doing. That’s a hard job…I don’t care how much you like it. At the end of the day, you know, he’s got to put food on the table, and he’s got to pay his rent, he’s got to pay his mortgage, he’s got to pay his bills…I could do it, though. If I had to, I would.
Considering the physical challenges of some of the jobs that you guys provide, did you have any thoughts about sort of wellness programs, or sort of occupational health programs?
Well, the one thing that’s happened to us in the last year or two is that, you know, health care has gone up. It’s a fact. So, healthcare expenses last year went up eleven percent. And this year again they were going to up another ten, eleven percent. So, we structured our entire health program to make sure that the employees didn’t actually have the burden of increased medical expenses. Because over time, you know, they have taken on more of the responsibility than we have. You know, we’ve added a little bit to them every year as expenses have gone up, but we still take the majority of that burden. But the one thing in regards to, and not so much the show, but I do facility visits all the time now, to all of the different production facilities. And a big program we have is wellness. You know, is that it’s cold in those wineries. It’s cold and wet out in the fields. You know, even since the show, you know, we used to have sick days at ten days. We cut them back to five. We’ve now just added them back to seven. I mean, you might say, “Well, It used to be ten, now it’s seven.” But’s it’s still two more than five.
We’ve had a couple of years where people are angry at corporations, where people are tough on CEOs and CEO compensation. Did that make you think at all about what it means to go out and put yourself out there as the public face of a company?
I grew up in the bottom five percent. So, I’m aware of what hard work can be, and not having all of the benefits of the CEO office. My father was a roofer, and basically almost an unemployed roofer. And if you watch the show, my father went to prison when I was, probably only, you know, maybe in the twenties. But he had a lot of problems going into that. And he died of a drug overdose later. And my mom worked at a glass plant, but then she really just worked at a bar. My mom was a bartender. You know, so, she wasn’t home all the time. So, you can argue I either raised myself or my brother raised me. You know, but there were lots of times where, you know, she wasn’t working, and we were on food stamps. So, I grew up in that—understanding that part. So, you know, going back out there and understanding the difficulties of what they go through in their lives, and tough economic times, when, you know, when we’ve laid off some folks. And, you know, but the reality of the people that worked for the company, is they truly appreciated having a job. But you never want to take advantage of that either.