Workers At Party Supply Company Far From Festive During 'Undercover Boss' Episode
Cutbacks during the crisis have been a downer. And this past Friday's episode of "Undercover Boss" provided a telling example of the national hurt: The nation's largest party supplies company was featured, and its CEO introduced his company with sob stories.
Sam Taylor joined the Oriental Trading Company just five months before the October 2008 crash. And so he had little time to prepare for the national belt tightening that followed the crash, which was particularly cruel for companies representing recreational fields like party supplies. A drop in revenue led Taylor to lay off 1,000 members of OTC staff and cut free drinks for the employees, among other perks.
Recalling that time, Taylor spoke with the earnestness of a Boy Scout. "I met with employees face to face to tell them that we were going to have to go through downsizing for the first time in our history," he said, sounding visibly moved by the memory. "And so I made it a priority that I was going to communicate with employees."
He went on to further describe the lessons he learned during the crisis. "If the cost structure is no longer possible, and those decisions have to be made, then it should be done quickly," he said during a telephone interview with AOL Jobs. In growing up, Taylor had a role model for cool-headedness in the face of adversity. His father died at 33 from a car crash with a drunk driver, leaving his mother to raise him and his three brothers.
The members of the staff who survived the cuts were scathing in their appraisal of the working conditions and performance of OTC, a company with $500 million a year in revenues. Posing as Dave Barton, a contestant on a reality show for failed entrepreneurs, Taylor was first introduced to Troy at a fulfillment center in Omaha. (The company is based in Omaha.)
"Wanting to work here is like wanting to walk across the desert," Troy commented. But he finds himself unable to leave his job, as the night shift allows him to earn money while also raising his four kids as a single father. But that didn't stop him from lambasting OTC. His most pointed critique is of the company's managers, whom he says see their employees as little more than numbers.
The observation served to disabuse Taylor of any lofty notions that he may have had of his company's relationship with its staff. His disappointment deepened as he continued his site visits. While Taylor can rightfully boast of having pulled OTC out of bankruptcy during the recovery, the cost cutting caused some bitter feelings among surviving employees. The practice of suspending free beverages, for instance, was questioned by two of the show's featured employees.
Andrew, who loads trucks at a shipping center, called his workplace a "dungeon." He regularly carries packages weighing upward of 50 pounds amid warehouse temperatures reaching triple digits. And yet the company limits the refreshments it provides to employees to allotted times. A "bunch of bull," was how Andrew described the policy while shooting pool with "Dave." Throughout the episode, Taylor himself complained about the sweltering heat as he studied the sweat stains on his T-shirt.
It was deja vu for Kim, a packer at the company's fulfillment center. For 19 years she has worked at OTC (in spite of her fiance's warnings about working in the overheated warehouse). With no beverages provided by the company, Kim brings her own water bottle to work. But that wasn't enough during one instance when she "went down," from heat stroke. At one point in the episode she complained about the beating her body takes: "Why don't one of these bigwig guys come out here and work with us in the warehouse and see if they can maintain the same pace?"
Taylor's last site visit only added to the dismal picture of OTC working conditions. "Do you ever get so distracted by the products because they are so fun?" he asked Julia, his sorting mentor at the induction center. She responded by looking away and not dignifying the question. Instead she spoke of the frustration of not having her business ideas listened to. She has alerted corporate bigwigs that the Hispanic community and its quinceanera parties provide an untapped market opportunity, but said that no one has paid any attention.
"It broke my heart that employees said, 'You know, we say make the world more fun, but this is not a fun place to work,' " Taylor commented as he drove away from his last assignment. In speaking with AOL Jobs, Taylor addressed the embarrassment of his company's performance. "Going on this show is obviously not just easy public relations," he said. "You put yourself out there. And it gives the CEO a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really learn about the company." He also emphasized how he appreciated the chance to improve employee engagement at OTC, which has seen improvement during his tenure; according to Gallup polls, OTC has moved from the abysmal sixth percentile in employee morale to a respectable 40th during his tenure.
What was also out of his control was shots of the boss dropping the ball on the job. Taylor failed to carry out the basic on-the-ground tasks of the company. Everywhere he went, from sorting to packing, he was just too slow. "You're doing this like an old man," observed Troy, his first mentor. And whereas Kim taped up 27 boxes in 10 minutes, "Dave" only managed to complete eight boxes.
The end-of-show reveal came off more like a grand apology. Taylor announced that he will provide soft drinks throughout company warehouses. He also said that he will raise the salary of the loaders by 25 cents per hour, which he said was a $100,000 commitment. (In speaking to AOL Jobs, Taylor declined to discuss actual salary amounts.) Overhead fans will be installed as well.
Taylor also announced that every senior executive will spend two days each year on the ground to learn more from the employees. And on top of that, there was the weekly reward of cash giveaways, with gifts of up to $30,000 for cars, for education and medical bills, and the like. But the rawest moment came when Taylor sat down with Kim. She told him that, just the night before the reveal, her fiance had suffered a stroke -- a bitter irony given his warnings to her about working at OTC. On the spot, Taylor announced that he will pay her medical bills. He then told her she should leave the set to be at his side.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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