Covert Collection

Waste Management COO Larry O'Donnell goes "undercover."

Editor's Note: Read the full interview conducted with Larry O'Donnell after O'Donnell's appearance on the CBS reality TV program "Undercover Boss.".

The CBS broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV was the most watched televised event in history. Many of those viewers stayed tuned to see Waste Management (WM) president Larry O'Donnell star in the premiere of "Undercover Boss," a new reality show that disguises senior executives as new hires on the front lines of their own companies.

O'Donnell says he spends 150 to 200 days a year visiting field operations and even got a commercial driver's license just so he could see what it is like to drive a garbage route. But it's difficult to get a real sense of the everyday issues his employees face. "I show up as the president of the company, and I'm treated like the president of the company," he says. "To go in like this was a unique opportunity."

O'Donnell says he was warmly welcomed at each job he performed. Moreover, his fellow employees strongly emphasized safety on the job, not only with him, but even with the production crew.

A highlight of the show is when O'Donnell is "fired" (for the first time in his career, he admits) after doing a poor job of collecting litter on the wind-buffeted Central Landfill in Pompano Beach, Fla. "It was very frustrating. It was a long afternoon," he says. "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 [my supervisor] Walter came back, he'd really get on me." (Watch the segment that shows O'Donnell's time collecting litter.)

What didn't make the final cut? O'Donnell says he was disappointed to see his turn as a crane operator at a Wheelabrator waste-to-energy facility hit the editing room floor, since it highlighted his company's commitment to renewable energy. Also omitted were most of the discussions O'Donnell held with his management team before and after he went undercover, making them appear aloof when they actually contributed a lot to the project. (Watch a bonus scene that shows O'Donnell's time as a crane operator.)

O'Donnell was most dismayed by the portrayal of Kevin Sutton, manager of an award-winning recycling center, and perhaps the episode's only villain. The time clock issue that Sutton is blamed for turned out to be a simple misunderstanding, rendering his comeuppance at show's end unnecessary.

"In retrospect, 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,'" says O'Donnell.

One of the show's more shocking revelations is that many drivers, reluctant to take time to divert from their routes, must resort to relieving themselves in a container. O'Donnell says the company is addressing this in a number of ways, including gaining permission for drivers to use customers' restrooms and building new restroom facilities at disposal sites: "It was something that was just flat overlooked."

Since the show aired, O'Donnell has received hundreds of e-mails from viewers expressing new respect for solid waste workers. "I'm so pleased that people will view our industry differently and know what tough jobs all of our front line employees do each and every day," he says.

  • Read the full interview conducted with Larry O'Donnell after O'Donnell's appearance on the CBS reality TV program "Undercover Boss.".
  • Watch the full Undercover Boss episode on CBS' Web site.

Related Stories