Reality television shows have become the rage in the past ten years. One that has intrigued me is “Undercover Boss.” Each episode features a high-ranking executive or the owner of a corporation going undercover as an entry-level employee to investigate how the company really works and to identify how it can be improved; as well, to reward the hard working staff. The executive alters his/her appearance and assumes an alias and fictional back-story. The employee is exposed to a series of predicaments and invariably spends time getting to know the people who work for the company, learning about their professional and personal challenges.

The concept is brilliant, and we all could benefit from having someone who is so vested in the interest of our organizations go undercover and learn from the challenges of day-to-day implementation and operations – especially when it comes to Risk Management.  The bosses would see how challenging it is to actually follow through on the policies and procedures that executives have set. It would also give them the opportunity to conduct an internal investigation to see if employees are complying with the protocols. 

For those of us currently in a career or volunteer position where we work with children, youth, the elderly or individuals with disabilities, we were likely surprised when we first started to learn that we would be in charge of mitigating risk for these vulnerable populations. As educators, camp counselors, child care workers, personal support workers, health care workers, or scout leaders, we likely didn’t sign up for that responsibility. We simply wanted to shape lives, be creative, heal, prepare lessons and leave a legacy. 

I currently serve on the board of an agency that works with the marginalized and those who are facing major life crises. Those of us in this type of role have quite the opposite experience from those folks listed above. We are distanced from fun, lighthearted front line care. Instead, we gather around boardroom tables and consider the risks of managing an organization that works with vulnerable populations – or any community for that matter. We are the ones who whisper a prayer or knock on wood, hoping and trusting our efforts to mitigate risk are effective. 

Unfortunately, we are not the ones who must carry out and adhere to the policies we set. Instead, volunteer coaches, Catechism teachers and community service leaders are given policies and procedures and expected to handle recruitment, screening, and training; are charged with the protection of vulnerable populations; are responsible for carrying out protocols for reporting and responding to abuse. When you consider that these tasks are added on top of their already overwhelming workload, it’s not a surprise that the ball is often dropped on protection and abuse prevention.

This is where the “undercover boss” is needed. We need to experience the tension between the front-line worker and the senior leader – who both want to mitigate risk. Too many policies are written around a boardroom table without input from the front-line worker. Too many times has the front-line worker not followed policies, instead making hasty decisions on their own, interpreting policies as best practices and recommendations instead of rules that must be adhered to.

If only the “undercover boss” walked a day in the front-line workers’ shoes. If only the “front-line employee” carried the weight of the world of risk management on his or her shoulders – and understood the implications of answering to a board, insurance company or stakeholder.

I believe we all could benefit from setting aside a few days on our annual calendar to walk in each other’s shoes and to discuss our experiences. Here’s what I suggest: 

  • If possible, get front-line employees and the “bosses” to spend a day together prior to establishing or updating policies.
  • Graphically map out the different programs of the agency, discussing staffing needs, the types of activities the organization runs, venue allocation, etc. – and assign a level of risk to each. Determining the level of risk of each activity is critical in order for board members to set parameters, limitations, and develop policies and procedures. 
  • Use this information to draft Informed Letters of Consent. Parents and guardians should be required to sign these letters, acknowledging what’s involved in the activities and stating that they allow their children to participate.
  • Remember, what should drive the process is your unwavering shared commitment to protection. Don’t focus on what is easiest for the worker, but what is truly best for the kids, and what will protect the dignity of the elderly. 

All policies should be customized with the specific organization in mind (as well as the organization’s insurance carrier and legal requirements).  The burden of implementation should be placed upon a committee, not just a single individual.  This committee should be cross-functional and comprised of representatives of key stakeholders, i.e. board members, senior leadership, program staff, parents, older youth, and community members who could fulfill roles in an advisory capacity. 

When the “boss” goes undercover or front-line workers think about the implications of not adhering to policies around risk management, we all benefit from a greater appreciation for the challenges of implementing a child/youth protection program. We end up with a more cohesive and well-rounded risk management program and, ultimately, we keep our vulnerable populations safe.


Read this related article:

Don’t Put Your Vulnerable Populations at Risk: Why You Need to Screen Your Volunteers



Melodie Bissell is the President & CEO of Plan to Protect®, a Verified Volunteers partner and an organization with a vision to win the race against abuse.  She co-authored and now is the primary distributor of Plan to Protect®, A Protection Manual for Children, Youth and Those That Work With Them.   The manual is a comprehensive plan to help you achieve a high standard of protection.  Plan to Protect® provides the tools, training, and momentum to create safe places for kids.  Melodie regularly consults with associations, schools, camps, churches and dioceses on abuse prevention, risk management, and strategic planning. She is also a sought-after speaker and trainer on Vulnerable Sector Protection. Visit Melodie on the web at

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