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“I think it is right for a chief executive to go out and do what he is asking his boys to do,” says Colin Drummond, chief executive of waste management company Viridor, as he prepared to go undercover for TV documentary series Undercover Boss, shown last night on Channel 4.

The programme saw Drummond, 59, working alongside Viridor employees in various roles posing as ‘John Roy’, an office worker taking part in a documentary about trying out entry-level jobs in the waste management industry. Drummond says he wanted to go undercover to learn how the decisions he makes as chief executive can impact on his staff.

On each job Drummond saw things which both impressed him and worried him. For his first assignment, he spent time on a trade waste collection round in the Trafford Park area of Manchester, with experienced driver Paul Cadman. Drummond appeared slightly incredulous at the issue of overfilled bins, apparently a big problem on the trade waste round because customers pay per bin rather than by weight. This can make working conditions more hazardous for employees, something Drummond felt strongly about.

Of all the sites he visited, by far the worst in terms of working conditions was a construction waste materials recovery facility (MRF) in the Filton area of Bristol, which Viridor acquired about seven years ago. Drummond was visibly shocked not only by the experience on the picking line, which was exposed to the elements, but also by the lack of cleanliness in the staffroom. Staff spoke of having seen rats on the premises and wanting better facilities to use during their break times.

A municipal waste MRF at Ford, West Sussex, seemed to provide better working conditions, but Drummond was surprised to find that so many staff were agency workers rather than Viridor employees. He met an agency worker called Justin on the picking line, and became concerned that such a good member of staff could leave at any time, perhaps for a competitor. This got the Viridor exec thinking about more permanent opportunities for staff like Justin.

On a more positive note, at one of Viridor’s newest household waste recovery centres (HWRC), Arkwright Street in Oldham, Greater Manchester, Drummond was impressed by the customer-friendly approach implemented by Viridor staff to drive up recycling rates, something which he believes could be replicated at other sites.

By far the most emotional part of the undercover experience for Drummond was his meeting with 44-year-old Tim Lake when he became a yard hand at a transport depot in Plympton, Plymouth. Tim has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, meaning he has now stopped driving and works as a yard hand at the depot. Drummond learned that every time Tim has to travel to London for treatment, he takes it as holiday rather than going on the company’s time. This level of dedication and commitment impressed Drummond and seemed to open his eyes to the loyalty shown by some of his employees to Viridor.

“Meeting Tim puts everything into perspective. It puts my job into perspective when I go back to the office. It really is an inspirational story,” he says. When Drummond returns to his day job as chief executive, he is determined to use what he has learnt from his time undercover to make some positive changes at Viridor. He reveals his true identity to the people he met and with it brings news of planned improvements.

Bin man Paul is to be sent to Berlin to investigate automatic bin weighing equipment, while the workers from Arkwright Lane are to sit on a working group to implement best practice at other Viridor HWRCs. Drummond says he is going to invest £25,000 in improvements to the construction MRF in Filton.

There is a permanent job on offer for Justin, as Drummond has recognised the need to retain the best staff. Finally, for Tim from Plymouth, Drummond promises to pay for a holiday for him and his two daughters, as well as trying to work with him so that he can start driving again, something which Tim stopped after being diagnosed with cancer.

At the end of the programme you get the sense that Drummond sees his experience undercover as a positive one, particularly in helping him to recognise how important his employees are to the company. He says: “I have always said people are a company’s greatest asset, and now I know they are Viridor’s greatest asset because I have met them.”

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