When Clean Harbors CEO Alan McKim went on CBS’ “Undercover Boss,” he discovered some of his employees weren’t such big fans.
“One of the drivers was quite verbal about corporate headquarters and the CEO of the company,” says McKim, 64. “[He was] talking about the glass palace, which is corporate, and the CEO, and sort of saying, ‘The CEO doesn’t really care.’ So he was quite surprised to find that [my undercover alter ego] ‘Bill Anderson’ was actually the CEO.”
In Monday’s episode of the Emmy-winning reality series — which follows high-level executives going undercover as entry-level employees in their own companies — McKim exchanges his suit for a hard hat and goes out into the field to mix with his employees.
McKim started Clean Harbors, the largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America, in 1980 with four employees, a number that’s ballooned to over 15,000. The company provides services including waste management, emergency spill response, industrial cleaning, and recycling services.
“My disguise was part of a search for a second career — I was Bill Anderson and I was disguised with long hair and a beard and mustache,” says McKim. “It was really quite amazing to go out in the field and participate in some of the cleanup activities and travel with some of the people out there. It was a really rewarding experience.”
It was even rewarding to talk to that driver who had unknowingly bad-mouthed him to his face, he says.
“That was tough to hear. But it really gave me an opportunity to probe a bit more and get his perspective, because we have over 4,000 drivers. And so when you hear something like that, you want to hear more. You want to understand, ‘Does the workforce feel like the CEO doesn’t care?’ ”
In the episode, McKim visits four different locations: Boston, Chicago, Texas and New Jersey, working at a refinery that recycles oil, cleanup from a hurricane and chemical distribution. While at the New Jersey branch, he worked on a mock-cleanup of a chemical spill in downtown Manhattan, near One World Trade Center (Eden’s Alley).
In a moving scene, the episode shows McKim talking to an employee who’s at the site for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001 — when the company worked on cleanup at Ground Zero.
“We were very much involved both in the 9/11 incident and the [2001 anthrax attacks] cleanup. That brought back some memories, talking with our employees involved,” McKim says. “The fact that he hadn’t been back to the site was amazing. I didn’t know we’d end up there [filming ‘Undercover Boss’] so it was very moving to hear his feelings about that. We were [at Ground Zero post-9/11] for a long time. We had about 350 people working there. All the trucks of debris that would leave the site — we’d decontaminate those at different wash stations.”
Even with the hard work and unexpected insults, McKim says his “Undercover Boss” experience was a positive one.
“I felt like I did get some unfiltered feedback,” he says. “I certainly was pleased to see that everywhere I was brought in as a prospective new hire [that] everyone really cared about safety. We try to make safety our number one priority, but with a large workforce sometimes you worry that you don’t get that message down to the workforce.
“I’m more appreciative of just how hard the work is to be working inside a tank or in the field when it’s hot and you need to wear protective clothing,” he says. “What came out of [the experience] is us having more corporate people go out and travel and do ride-alongs with people in the field, and to get more of them in the field to come to corporate and understand the serious business they’re doing.”