4

So, I happened to be watching Undercover Boss tonight, and in one of the jobs the CEO starts asking some personal questions of his employees - like:

  • how old are you?
  • do you have kids?
  • where did you grow up?
  • who raised you?
  • how did your parent get murdered? (seriously)
  • etc...

I know it's a TV show, but these questions seemed completely inappropriate to me. Maybe I personally am very reserved, but is it appropriate for co-workers to ask these types of personal questions? Note that these weren't interviews; it was like he was just on his first day on the job.

Edit: This is the episode I watched on YouTube. When he's with employee/co-worker #2, especially, and sometimes #1 and #3, his questions seem inappropriate to me, the viewer, and don't seem like they would fly at a real workplace.

7

The appropriateness of the questions is somewhat cultural. For instance in the US is generally considered impolite to ask how old someone is but not how many kids they have (or even the kids ages). In some other cultures, personal questions are a strong component of the cultural expectation in the workplace.

In all cultures however, at least some personal questions are considered ordinary and unexceptional.

In the company I work for we often bring offshore resources to this country and one of the reasons why is so that people develop personal relationships as we have found that it improves our ability to work together. This is true for most workplaces.

People who have some connection to each other personally generally work better together and people who try to remain too private in the personal lives tend to get excluded from the group and are not as effective at work as they could be. Co-workers often resent those who hide their personal lives because it makes them appear as if they think they are superior to their co-workers and look down on them. You don't want to appear to be a jackass to your co-workers.

Be polite and talk politely to people even if you choose not to answer their questions. If you don't want to talk about how many kids you have (I personally have never met a parent who didn't want to talk about his or her kids, but YMMV.), then change the subject to something less personal (but still not work-related) like the results of the football game last night.

This is not to say you have to reveal your whole life to anyone. Be friendly and make small talk at roughly the same level that everyone else does. The amount of sharing will also vary between professions and type of personalities. There are more introverts in the programming world than most professions, so you can get away with less sharing than if you are a sales person.

But it is counterproductive to be insulted at such questions as they are ordinary and unexceptional.

  • This is the right answer to the real question here (not the silly TV part). – enderland Sep 25 '15 at 14:28
  • "How did your parent get murdered?" is an unexceptional question? – Kilisi Sep 25 '15 at 18:04
13

The TV program is rigged. The producers have already scouted the company for people who can tell a sob story. They have a crisis in their life, or they have a long story of overcoming a series of setbacks.

The producers need to use x minutes of screen time for each of these 3-5 stories to set the scene, identify the item that make them sympathetic, and then move on. They also weave together through the stories how a typical CEO can't do the job of the typical employee in their company.

They then wrap up the weekly show by having a meeting where each employee is surprised that they didn't recognize that the bumbling new employee being followed by cameras was really the big boss. Then they are awarded that promotion, college scholarship, vacation or whatever else will appear to solve their issue.

The new employee has to be extra nosy or we the TV viewer will never be able to see the crisis.

Yes in a typical working environment coworkers ask these type of questions. They just don't do it all in the first hour of getting there. Also if coworkers don't want to divulge they don't have to. They are done as part of many conversations, not as a series of rapid fire questions. If they don't want to share, the conversations don't spend much time in those areas.

  • 1
    This can also vary based on culture. Some cultures are a lot more relational and asking what would be considered "personal questions" in the USA/Western cultures is not at all abnormal. In this particular case with the TV show it's all just staged like you say but in the more realistic scenario of coworkers asking about this type of information it might just be cultural differences in what is appropriate. – enderland Sep 25 '15 at 13:18
  • 1
    @mhoran_psprep Editing a long conversation does make a difference in how a conversation comes across. It seemed like he was asking a lot of questions in rapid-fire succession and, from my perspective, not only did the subject matter of the questions seem inappropriate so did the way he asked them - one after the other. The "rigging" part seems to fit. I'd have to guess that perhaps some of the people knew what was going on, so they were more willing to cooperate. – user70848 Sep 25 '15 at 14:34
1

I've worked with many people in many industries, in professional industries such as IT I could go years without knowing more than that they're married, and have a kid. Blue collar tends to be more informal particularly jobs like forestry where you live 24/7 with people for weeks at a time. In those cases where a lot of your time spent together is not working, you learn a lot more, but over time, not all at once and usually it's volunteered information.

For one of the software consultants I've used regularly for years, my total knowledge of his personal life is his name, that he lives in Sweden and prefers to be paid by paypal. Yet we constantly correspond and have an excellent working relationship.

So yes, I agree that those questions are completely inappropriate.

1

Most (but not all) of the companies featured on Undercover Boss are franchises, and franchises are independently owned. That means the CEO (or whoever they get) is not the employer of the employee. The franchise owner is. If you watch the show regularly, you would have seen a few shows where this is discussed. The CEO wants to fire someone, but he has no power to do that, so he has to call up the franchise owner and make his case. They've done shows where the franchise owner comes in at the "wrap up" stage and either fires the employee or comes up with a "plan."

If the employee and the CEO do not have a direct relationship, they should be able to talk about whatever they want. But that's all beside the point, because of the fact that the employee has agreed to be on a TV show and has voluntarily agreed to give up any privacy claims.

1

One thing to keep in mind is that in the context of the show, the person is not asking their employees personal questions. They are pretending to be a peer (or less than a peer) of the person they are talking to. That is, although we hear the CEO ask the assistant manager a very personal and intrusive question, which would be awkward, the assistant manager hears the new person, typically presented as someone who is "starting over" at some entry-level job while being much older than is typical for such a job, asking questions of their new boss, or of their more senior coworker.

There is a good chance that the "new person" revealed some personal details of their own before asking. Consider "I sure hope I work out ok in this job. My kids are teenagers and I really need to be making money so they will be ok. Do you have kids?" The show can edit out this leading question and we just see "do you have kids?" - and then the revealing answer from the assistant manager.

And finally, if the "new person" tries to have a personal conversation with someone who doesn't reveal personal details about themselves, that person will not get the "lottery win" at the end of the show where the CEO sets up a college fund for the kids or provides the down payment for a house so the wheelchair-bound mother can live with the manager or whatever. Not everyone the undercover boss interacts with gets that sort of thing.

  • Yes, the editing process probably cuts out a lot of information that would be too boring for people to watch, just to make the show seem juicier. Although, it's not clear how the employees have any incentive for being so open if the CEO is meant to be undercover. I'm not sure the show is as "undercover" as they make it out to be. – user70848 Sep 25 '15 at 20:46
  • I think people are open because they see the asker as a peer or as someone below them, someone who is not a threat and it's safe to tell them things. And most North Americans are conditioned to disclose personal information to anyone who has disclosed to them, to sort of "even the stakes" if you will. – Kate Gregory Sep 25 '15 at 21:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.