‘Undercover Boss’ Sara Bittorf speaks at College of Business


As part of Homecoming activities, the College of Business went “undercover” Friday afternoon, hosting a lecture by Sara Bittorf

Bittorf, chief brand officer for the Boston Market food chain, is known for being the only executive to immediately fire an employee on the CBS show, “Undercover Boss.” 

In the College of Business lobby, Bittorf spoke to a group of about 250 alumni, students and members of the local business community about her experiences on the show and what she gleaned from the experience.

“It was absolutely a huge risk,” Bittorf said, speaking about her decision to go on the show.

When Bittorf was originally propositioned to do the show by her bosses, she was new to the company, having transferred from previous jobs at Burger King and Carnival Cruise Lines.

She was brought into Boston Market to help get the company back on its feet following massive store closures and restructuring.

“We were on a trend of improvement for the past couple years,” she said. “But we had this problem where people were wondering where we had gone and some people didn’t even wonder where we had gone because they didn’t think about us anymore.”

That, Bittorf said, is why the company decided to participate in the show.

“Undercover Boss” is a reality TV program that sends corporate executives into their own chain stores disguised as new hires. The bosses work at four different chains, working a new position each time.

Bittorf traveled to four different Boston Market stores, including a store in Tampa. 

The basic formula of the show, Bittorf said, was that she would travel to four store. Three would be good, but one would be troublesome.

In a clip from the episode that Bittorf played at her speech, Ronnie, a shift supervisor for a Boston Market in Duluth, Ga., could be seen bad-mouthing corporate policy and joked about spreading leprosy in the kitchen.

When Ronnie began using expletives and spoke about how much he hated the customers, Bittorf said she had to do something.

“I still get asked to this day if I still stand by my decision to fire him on the show,” Bittorf said. “I received some angry letters from people, including Ronnie’s mother, who don’t think I made the right decision, but I can tell you that I stand by my decision. That kind of behavior just wasn’t acceptable from an employee.”

Bittorf admitted that if given the opportunity, she wouldn’t choose to do the show again. She said the months of filming and lying took its toll on her, but the experience as a whole showed her a lot about the disconnect between the corporate realm and the workers on the front line.

“It’s usually quicker to just say ‘Go do this,’ instead of ‘This is the reason why I want you to go do this, and if I tell you why, maybe you can think about the next step so you can handle it on your own,'” Bittorf said. “Because of this, so often, all that makes it to the front line is rules, procedures, ridiculous standards and people like Ronnie telling the customer ‘It’s because corporate said so.'”

Because of the experiences she had on the show, Bittorf said Boston Market has focused more on employees through offering more employee appreciation programs and asking them for more input on new projects.

Bittorf ended her speech by telling business students how they could better brand themselves and their products or companies.

“You need to be able to say in one concise answer why you are different, better or special,” she said. “Once you have defined yourself and your brand, you need to understand what kind of job you are doing for the customer and really think about that.”

Bittorf’s speech was followed by a short panel discussion on data-drive decision making in business moderated by professor Balaji Padmanabhan.

The panel members included Robert Carter, co-chief executive officer of FedEx, Kimberly Ross, executive vice president of Avon Products, Inc. and Andre Therrien, chief business officer for the Florida Panthers hockey team.

According to Carter, whether it is business-generated data or data acquired through Internet data-mining, data is becoming more and more a central part of how businesses are making decisions.

“It used to be that we made decisions with our gut and that was it,” Carter said. “But FedEx has always been about using data to drive our decisions. It’s not an either, or thing, it’s and. You need to use data to inform your gut decisions.”

When a member of the audience asked Therrien what data-processing software he used at his business and what he recommended to business students who want to know more about the subject, he said students need to get a firm grasp on how prominent data is becoming in business decision making.

“When you come in, we can teach you Excel or any of the programs, but what we can’t teach you is the data-driven mindset,” Therrien said. “You need to know what data to look for, whether it be ticket sales, price projections or whatever, and you need to know how to explain what that information means to your co-workers.”