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When you’re the head of a company, there are a few ways to get to know the conditions your workers face. You can fund industry research; you can survey employees; you can even study competitors. Stacy Brown-Philpot, the CEO of the on-demand labor company TaskRabbit, decided to go undercover and deep-clean someone’s apartment.
Brown-Philpot joined TaskRabbit as COO in 2013 and was promoted to chief executive three years later. One of the few black executives in Silicon Valley, Brown-Philpot has her sights set on making TaskRabbit as expansive and successful as its new owner, Ikea, which bought the company in 2017.
At Fortune’s Brainstorm conference in Aspen, Colorado, she told audiences that she’s been trying to better understand the TaskRabbit customer and worker, and to do so, she created her own TaskRabbit account and got herself hired. Her task was to clean someone’s apartment, but it wasn’t any ordinary job; the person who hired her was moving and needed a squeaky-clean apartment to get his security deposit back.
“That was a lot of pressure,” said Brown-Philpot. “Because it wasn’t just cleaning it so you could sleep nice tonight; it was money on the line. It was a good experience to not just feel what it’s like to be a client sometimes but also feel what it’s like to be a tasker.”
Brown-Philpot had two hours to finish the job, which included scrubbing down a filthy oven. She proudly boasted to the audience that the security deposit was, indeed, returned.
Other CEOs have gone undercover in the past (with some instances feeling more like stunts than others). In April, Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi drove some customers around San Francisco to get a feel for what it was like. In 2014, the CEO of Modell’s got caught going undercover to spy on competitor Dick’s Sporting Goods. CBS even made an entire reality TV show, Undercover Boss, about the strategy.
While Brown-Philpot’s effort seems to be a genuine attempt at understanding her taskers, the undercover method isn’t a surefire way for CEOs to relate to the struggles their workers face.
For starters, CEOs make way more than their average employee, and executive salaries have ballooned alarmingly over the past 50 years. Sure, Brown-Philpot rolled up her sleeves and did the dirty work, but she got to go back to being a CEO the next day, while this sort of work is exactly how many TaskRabbit contractors make a living. (The company, meanwhile, used to take a 30 percent cut of their labor, but recently switched that cut to 15 percent.) According to Earnest, 85 percent of gig economy workers make less than $500 per month from their gigs, with TaskRabbiters averaging $380 a month.
Gig economy workers now make up 34 percent of America’s workforce, according to the business and financial software company Intuit, with that number expected to increase to 43 percent by 2020. Walking into completely unknown scenarios, they can face dangers like physical assault, are at high risk of injuries and fatality rates if they ride bikes, have few workers’ rights because they aren’t eligible to join unions or worker associations, and overall work in a lonely, relationship-less sector.
The undercover idea is a good start, but to truly understand what these workers face, CEOs will have to do more than parachute into a job for 24 hours.