Leno as news anchor? The job-swap appeal

Television personalities Katie Couric and Jay Leno of NBC aren't exactly disgruntled employees. But Monday they will engage in an activity that's known for boosting morale in the workplace: swapping jobs.

The gesture is just for a day - bringing a woman's touch to late-night TV only temporarily. And it isn't even likely to be the best swap of the week: The other host of "Today," Matt Lauer, is trading places with a New York cabbie on Thursday morning. By that time Ms. Couric will be back at her regular job and, presumably, tipping Mr. Lauer's replacement.

Most job swaps aren't so public, but workplace experts say the practice can be much more than a gimmick, helping workers stretch their horizons in an era of career mobility. Employers can benefit, too, when a CEO finds out what life on the shop floor is like. Job swaps, in short, may be just the kind of approach cash-strapped companies should be taking currently.

"If they haven't cottoned to it now, it's certainly something for them to consider, because in a downsized organization, it's a way of helping people broaden their career and hopefully get them realigned and motivated again," says Geof Boole, who is in charge of career transition services for Philadelphia-based Right Management Consultants.

In one typical form of job exchange, management trainees bounce around to different departments to get a feel for the company.

Mr. Boole, who used to have people trade positions often when he worked in human resources for Sears in the late 1960s, says it's not hard to do: Have people in employee relations trade with those who train employees for example, or those in accounts payable switch with those in accounts receivable.

Those kinds of swaps wouldn't demand the kind of skilled deception found in the movie "Catch Me If You Can," where the main character pretends to be a pilot and a lawyer, among other professions. But sometimes the ones that require a bit of winging it are more fun - if the boss can tolerate a misstep or two.

Media-watcher Andrew Tyndall, who tracks trends in network news coverage - and would most like to trade places with a Shakespearean actor - says his idea of a good swap would involve ABC's main news anchor and NBC actor Kelsey Grammer. "You can imagine Peter Jennings as 'Frasier,' can't you?" jokes Mr. Tyndall, noting that Mr. Grammer would make a perfect newscaster with his deep voice and ability to raise an eyebrow.

Such changes can seem like pure whimsy - and may be mere publicity stunts. But they may also be one way to address a significant challenge in today's workplace: low morale.

Towers Perrin, a human-resource consulting firm, released a study earlier this year finding widespread negative emotions in the US workplace, fueled by concerns about job security, workload, and boredom with their work. This can hurt companies as well as workers, as employees perform poorly or look to leave for greener pastures.

Job swaps have become fairly common in certain professions, from museum curators to librarians and teachers, who sometimes cross the Atlantic for the right trade.

On the British version of iVillage.com, an article entitled "Falling in love again - with your job," offers this suggestion: "Look around for a job you'd like to try. Then talk to the person in that job and, if they're keen, approach the boss together."

Good advice, unless the people taking it are the White House gardener and Gen. Tommy Franks. The logistical complications of swapping - not everyone has the entourage that Couric and Mr. Leno do - may keep it from becoming a well-used management tool. But it does present interesting opportunities.

"I don't think it's ever going to catch on" in a big way, says John Challenger, of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, "but it certainly might be an antidote" to midcareer blahs.

He'd like there to be a middle-aged Peace Corps, where people can go for two years and still be able to come back to their current job. He points out that some folks take changing jobs into their own hands. Though not exactly the same as what is happening on NBC, Mayor Michael Bloomberg traded running a company for running New York City. And Greta Van Susteren opted out of lawyering to be a talk-show host on CNN, then on FOX.

As for him, the job Challenger would most like to do is being the host of "Inside the Actors Studio," an interview program on TV's Bravo channel. "You get to talk with one great person after another," he says.

Beyond the workplace, job-swapping is often employed by charities to raise money - and by college students being "president for a day."

That happened recently at tiny York College, in York, Neb., when student body president Titus Robinson took over from the head of the school, Wayne Baker. Mr. Baker found it to be a great experience. "I didn't have any responsibilities for the day," he says. He attended classes and chapel (seated next to Mr. Robinson's girlfriend), and was done at 4:30 rather than at 7:30 pm. The next day Robinson told Baker that the biggest shock was that his job was so much about money - faculty needing it and Baker raising it. "I said, Well, you have to keep it from being all about money."

Baker offers this advice to people who are trading places: "Just clear your mind and look for new things. Just enjoy and experience the day." Got that, Jay and Katie?

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