Q&A: Behind the scenes of "Undercover Boss" with Waste Management's Larry O'Donnell

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted with Waste Management President and Chief Operating Officer Larry O'Donnell and Waste Management Vice President of Corporate Communications Lynn Brown two days after O'Donnell's appearance on the CBS reality TV program "Undercover Boss." On that show, O'Donnell pretended to be new hire at Waste Management, trying out a number of frontline jobs within his own company. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The interview touches upon a situation depicted on the show where recycling center manager Rick Sutton is blamed for employees being docked two minutes for every one minute past their allotted lunch break that they fail to clock in. On the show, O'Donnell was dismayed by this policy, but later (after production of the show had concluded) discovered that it was actually just a misunderstanding stemming from a somewhat arcane document posted next to the timeclock.

Waste Age: How did you get involved with the program, and what was your motivation for participating?

Larry O'Donnell: Well, Lynn was contacted by an entertainment agency out in L.A. When she brought it to me, my first response was, "There is no way that I'm doing a reality TV show!" I'm not a reality TV-type person.

But the more Lynn and I talked about it… We've been working on employee engagement for a number of years, and we've made a lot of progress in trying to make our employees feel like they have a voice and feel recognized. But we can always do better.

I spend a lot of time traveling out in the field. I probably travel 150 to 200 days a year, with much of that time out with our field operations to better understand just what they deal with. In fact, I went and got my commercial driver's license a little over two years ago, just because I wanted to have a better appreciation of what our drivers have to deal with out on their routes. But, I show up as the president of the company, and I'm treated like the president of the company. To go in like this was a unique opportunity.

What our employees were told was that I was a brand new employee, that I used to work in the construction industry, which is true, and that the cameras were there to film a documentary on what it's like for a new employee to come into our industry.

WA: What aspect of the experience differed most from your expectation going in?

LO: Well, I thought I had a really good understanding of our business and our operations because I spend so much time out there. But going in as a new employee, it was a different experience.

I had hoped I would find some things because, look, no company is perfect. I was hoping I would find some of the things that might be causing unnecessary frustration out there for our frontline.

And I did discover a couple of those things, which you saw in the show, which we're going to try to improve. But what I also learned was what a dedicated team that we have at Waste Management.

Everybody welcomed me onto their team immediately. They wanted me to succeed, even though I wasn't very good at any of the jobs. They all tried to help me. And even more importantly, as you probably know if you follow us, we've been focused on safety and becoming world-class in safety ever since I got here.

For me personally, what I found very gratifying was how every job I had, all the employees — my co-workers, my supervisors — throughout the day would talk to me about how to go about my job in the safest manner. If we took a break or broke for lunch, before we got going again, they'd go over everything with me all over again, even my co-workers. So that really impressed upon me that we've changed the culture over here at Waste Management.

WA: Were there any aspects of going undercover that you enjoyed more than your duties as COO?

LO: Well, certainly I enjoyed getting out and working hard. These are very hard jobs and long hours. People start really early in the morning. I get up pretty early, but I don't get up THAT early. I enjoyed getting to know new people in the company on a first-name basis.

WA: What were you thinking during those 10 minutes snagging trash on the landfill?

LO: That was probably the longest day that I've had at any job that I've had. It was on a Saturday on top of that. That whole day I was just thinking, "Wow, there sure are a lot of other things I'd rather be doing" because I knew I wasn't doing a very good job.

You couldn't really tell on the show, but the wind was just blowing like crazy that day. A storm had come through. It was in South Florida. Walter wouldn't let me use my hands.

I received a lot of e-mails from people asking, "Why didn't you use your hands?" He wouldn't let me use my hands for safety reasons. Every time I'd lift the stick up with trash on it, the wind would blow everything off the little stick that I had.

Then every now and then a gust of wind would turn my bag inside out and dump everything that I had. It was very frustrating. It was a long afternoon. At one point, I even thought about just sitting down and letting the wind blow all the trash to me. I'd probably collect more trash doing it that way, but then I knew when Walter came back he'd really get on me.

WA: A lot of times reality shows are heavily edited to create a certain narrative. Did the show as it appeared on TV feel true to your experience? Was there anything that you felt was left out?

LO: That is a great question. I have a couple of responses there. First of all, in terms of what was left out that I wish was in, I actually worked at one of our Wheelabrator waste-to-energy facilities as a crane operator. I really wish that would have been in. A lot of people don't know that we make energy from trash.

Yeah, there were a number of things, as it went through editing, that didn't come across or may have been a little different than they appeared on the show. First of all, our senior leadership team. The way they cut everything, it does look like they're pretty aloof and out of touch. And of course, that was the premise of the show. But I can tell you they are very engaged.

We talked a lot about it as a team even before I went out and did it. When I came back after spending almost two weeks out there, doing a different job every day, and talked about the things I had learned, you just saw a little bit of that on the show. But we spent quite a bit of time talking about the things I had learned and what we could put into action to address some of the things I had learned. In fact some of them even volunteered to help lead those teams.

The show could only be an hour long, so I can understand how they couldn't include all of that.

WA: Would you consider implementing this kind of role reversal for all managers within the company, either as part of orientation or on a regular basis so that they stay in touch with what their employees deal with on a daily basis?

LO: I've actually thought about that. I think it'd be a great idea. It's probably going to be hard to do within Waste Management because of the show. But certainly I'll continue to encourage people to get out and experience these frontline jobs even if they're not undercover.

Another thing that I wanted to point out that wasn't the way it appeared was that whole timeclock issue. We weren't docking people's pay like that. I looked into it after the filming, and it was just a misunderstanding on the part of some of the employees there.

I'll tell you another one too that I'd really appreciate you saying something about if you can find the space in your article. Our manager there, Kevin Sutton, is really a great manager.

WA: He kind of comes across as the villain of the show a bit.

LO: Yeah, and that is certainly not the case. He's one of the best recycling managers we have. His site has been recognized and has actually received an award for being one of our highest-performing recycling facilities in the company. He's been a great sport about this whole thing, because again, through the editing process it might not have appeared that way. He came across as a hero with his team when he went back and said, "Wow, I didn't know we had this misunderstanding" and explained it to them. They were all really happy with it.

Lynn Brown: I will say, at the time we filmed, we thought it was a problem. It wasn't until we got back from filming everything, that we were able to look into it and figure out exactly what was going on there. I didn't want to leave you with the impression that the producers knew the truth and yet they did that.

LO: You can even see it on the show when I say, "Wow, why didn't I know about this? This isn't our policy. Why is this happening here?" If you ever have the chance to re-watch it, look at Kevin's face.

WA: Yeah, he looked very sheepish. He looked kind of confused.

LO: In retrospect, what he's doing is he's sitting there thinking, "I don't have a clue what you're talking about. We don't do that. But I'm not going to get in an argument here with you in front of this camera."

WA: You put yourself in the position of your frontline employees for one week. Now imagine that you don't get to go back to corporate. How can you as a grassroots employee affect positive change within the company? What mechanisms are in place for frontline Waste Management employees to suggest process improvements to senior management?

LO: You are absolutely right. We do want to make all of our employees feel like they have communication channels and feel like part of the team so they can suggest solutions. Who better to ask how to improve the company than the frontline employees who are doing the tough jobs every day? So we're doing a number of things. One, we do have help lines. We do have an open door policy. We're doing an annual survey to get input from all of our employees. We have something called the "idea exchange." People can go online and submit their ideas, and we follow up on each one of those.

LB: Really, what we're telling people is the best way is to start a dialogue with your frontline supervisor. If not your frontline supervisor, then your supervisor's supervisor.

LO: Just from having done this, I can tell you, all of the employees within the company, it's buzzing around here. People see that we do all care and we do all want to succeed as a team.

WA: My wife wants to know if more humane bathroom policies have been put in place for the women drivers?

LO: Yeah, that was a real shocker for me and it's not just the women.

WA: Yeah, I guess it would apply to both genders if you don't have time to get off the route to go the bathroom.

LO: What we're doing is we're making arrangements on our drivers' routes so that they do have a place [to go to the bathroom]. In some cases, it's a customer that we've made arrangements with in advance. Or it might be that we're setting up a facility at our disposal facilities, so if nature calls, they have a place there. So we've been working through that. It was something that was just flat overlooked.

I'll also say, I'm getting e-mails from customers, employees, people who want to become employees, but I'm also hearing from a number of customers who are just saying that they never really appreciated their garbage man, and they never really understood what people did in our industry. And they said they're never going to view their garbage man the same ever again. They're going to view them differently.

I just hope that's true, [because of] all the really hard work that all of our folks and all of the frontline people in our industry endure. They have long hours. Right now, in parts of the country, they deal with bad weather. Hopefully, they'll all be viewed differently, no matter who they work for, and they'll receive more recognition and appreciation out on their routes.