I'm hoping my editor won't lose confidence in me when I confess that my column this month is inspired by a reality TV show. It's not even a particularly good show, as one can sense the handprints of corporate public relations teams throughout the hour. Yet, the concept is elegant and the potential lessons for inside counsel are meaningful. I'm talking about "Undercover Boss," which tracks CEOs for a week as they pretend to be new trainees in unglamorous jobs at their companies--with a camera crew in tow.
Episodes that have aired as I write this included CEOs of Waste Management, 7-Eleven and White Castle. Mainly we watch CEOs gain a new appreciation for hardworking employees who are making the best of their situations. Yet in each episode the CEO seems genuinely surprised when a corporate policy does not translate into the field. An example is the wasteful dumping of bagels at a 7-Eleven store, even though 7-Eleven has a program in place to donate such food to homeless shelters. The show also revealed misbehavior--such as a male manager at Hooters who treated his female servers disrespectfully.
Transitioning this column now to actual career advice, let's start by stripping away the elements of this show that are not going to happen in your world. You are not going to actually go undercover at your company. You won't be taking a full week away from your job to flip burgers. And most certainly there won't be a camera crew in sight.
However, I absolutely encourage you to take the core idea and run with it. Take a day and substitute yourself for a line employee somewhere in the field. Be upfront about who you are. No need for the ruse. It's ok if your co-workers for the day go into "best behavior" mode. You will still get invaluable insights into your company's culture, and you may even learn something that can be specifically relevant to your area of legal responsibility. Beyond what you might take away from the experience, your presence will benefit your co-workers. Front line employees love to know that corporate HQ cares about them. A lawyer who is willing to get her hands dirty for a day can change the perception of her entire legal department.
Many companies do incorporate elements of this idea. Most inside counsel in manufacturing companies take plant tours and sit in informational meetings with employees at all levels. Some companies put all new employees through product awareness training. Lawyers at McDonald's, for example, spend time in "Hamburger University" at the company's HQ.
But I think it's very rare to see a company lawyer actually working in the field. If you have done so and wish to share your story of that experience, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). If this column intrigues you, don't let the human resources folks get in your way. I think the likelihood of support from above outweighs any red tape barriers to making this happen. A day in the store, or on the factory floor, is a really good career move.