• Alicia Leo

Mapping Out Empathy With Undercover Boss

Updated: Apr 17

The way that I look at empathy is - everyone has a story that you know nothing about.


As someone who has looked at empathy in storytelling, it was interesting for me to shift toward looking at a user for my user experience courses in this way. I’ve thought a lot about empathy in the way that it affects writing in storytelling, but this was a shift for me. My UX professor explained the concept of empathy by saying, “only by understanding the users can we begin to think about how to address their unique problems and needs.” But this can be effective in not only just design or writing. This is an extremely instrumental part of what makes a business successful, and really anything else in life.


The idea of the television show called Undercover Boss is really interesting to me as someone who has worked in customer service for a long time because these CEOs go undercover in their own company. It's like an experiential empathy map.


This leads them to gain empathy for their employees by understanding what they experience every day and see first-hand how the company they own runs on a daily basis. That’s when unforeseen truths with their personnel can come through, like having to walk a few miles in the dark to work for an early morning shift because that is when they were scheduled for work.


It goes to show that you can plan something like a business or product to function/be a certain way, but if you don’t immerse yourself into understanding how the way your plan affects the people who use and experience it on a day-to-day basis then there is going to be a lot of oversight and less of a chance for longevity or success.


I took a look at Season 1, Episode 4 of Undercover Boss to see how this experiment would lead the CEO to gain empathy for the workers and see any oversights that do not come through in a formal visit. I chose this episode in particular because the description insinuated that the CEO, Dave Rife, had destroyed a whole shipment of his own product. I feel that for someone so successful in a company yet removed from the front lines, this is a humbling experience and I wanted to see what came to light from this experience for him.


Using an empathy map while watching the episode really helped me understand the things to identify about each person, or character, in the show. An empathy map in the form I was given it was something very new to me. It shows both what they are experiencing on the outside and what they feel and think on the inside. Kind of like a character study, but different. The perspectives it lays out for you help you understand and anticipate the person's needs and reasons.


Seeing this episode of Undercover Boss and using an empathy map put this idea of empathy in perspective for me in a new light. The episode begins with the story of Dave, where the audience gains empathy for him. He’s not just the CEO of White Castle, but he is someone who has struggled with serious health issues that he has overcome. He is someone who is extremely value-oriented and cares about the long-established goals of the family company. This mission is not to expose the stores of cutting corners, but to find out what they can do to make the company both more efficient and a great place to work.


Below you can find a scan of my empathy map notes for Dave:



The biggest things that I found were standing out to him were the stories about people’s families, since his is so important to him, and the efficiency/standards of their stores.


“Sometimes I think when there’s a disconnect between the home office and people in the field. They know what they need. We need to do a better job at listening to what they’re telling us.

He saw and heard that the product quality used to be a lot better, supervisors are spending a lot of time in the break room and that these people who work at the stores want to be invested in.

Donna is an employee at one of the White Castle stores. I found her interactions on the show to be most interesting. This is because she and Dave have a similar stressor – that being long term health.


Below you can find a scan of my empathy map notes for Donna:



Donna exhibited that her main concerns are making ends meet and her health, but having such easy access to unhealthy food at her job that allows her to fulfill her concern for providing is not ideal.


Looking at Donna before and after she found out that Dave was an Undercover Boss, you can see that she is so grateful for the opportunity for there to be a new wellness program put in place from this experiment. From writing in the empathy map, it made it clear that she doesn’t have that support system from anywhere else. Her job enables her to have bad habits, her main role is being a provider for her family, and she needs someone to invest in her just as much as she’s investing in others. Dave recognized that because he had his own experiences with health and stress that allowed him to really listen to what she was saying.


From the maps, I was able to see that what Dave heard and saw really impacted the things he said, the way he felt, and the things he did.


Something that was similar between Dave and some of the employees is that in some stores, the employees felt lost. They were all new and had little clear direction on what the right things to do were.


But what I found to be different between him and the employees was that Dave is using his power to try and make changes based on his values. He got easily frustrated when he did not succeed but tried to understand what the inherent problems were because there was something big at stake, pride. But it is important to consider that for the people who work in the stores, the job’s main purpose is to provide a means to support themselves. Of course, those values that are instilled in the company’s culture are important, but there is not that same pride that goes into the job.


Before this exercise, I understood that empathy gave us a gateway to understanding others. I gained knowledge from using an empathy map on what details and cues to look for to gain a better understanding of a person. It’s not all about what they say, but also how they react, why they might react that way, what path they’re on, and what they are experiencing or collecting from their situation. I now have a greater appreciation for looking at things through this lens because I was able to have the empathy map to guide me through that process.


Dave said it himself that he felt like he went into the experience with a procedural mindset, but ended up connecting with the people that work for the company.


“As a boss, I’m used to sitting behind my desk and look at the numbers. Now every time I look at those numbers I put a face to them and try to think about how the decisions I make will impact those faces.

When I look at it, the people who produced Undercover Boss really understood this process of understanding empathy.


They facilitated a real-life or experiential empathy map with this series. And that’s a pretty cool and entertaining way to show how important empathy really is for a successful endeavor.