First off, let me dispense with the elephant in the room — Yes, the show “Survivor” is still on the air and yes, I haven’t missed any of the 39 seasons of it.
In fact, I shared lessons that employers could learn from Survivor way back in 2010.
Last week’s episode of Survivor, however, brought far more reality than most would think a “reality show” could or should bring.
There’s a lot of nuance to the episode that a short blog post can’t get into (though this podcast by Rob Cesterino gives it a try), but the show’s episode revolved around legitimate sexual harassment claims, using harassment claims for nefarious purposes, and bystander syndrome.
And it was ugly. Really ugly.
Why? Here are a few things that stood out to me from an employment perspective:
First, a female player (Kellee) complained to a producer that another male player (Dan) was a little too “touchy” and made her feel uncomfortable. To be sure, there was plenty of video evidence to back her up. The male player was given a “warning” and play continued. But here’s the thing: The female player never knew that a warning was issued and Dan worked with others to get Kellee voted out of the game immediately thereafter. Not telling the complainant what was going on with her complaint is just one of the ways the producers seem to have mishandled things.
Kellee points out all the issues in an interview that was released yesterday.
If production was going to give Dan an official warning, they should have just pulled him from the game or at least informed me so that I was aware of how it might impact the game.
Let’s bring this to the workplace; you complain about your coworker making you feel uncomfortable and touching you too much. This person gets a warning, and as a result, refuses to work with you, blocks anything you try to put forward, and it hurts your career. So while I don’t think this was the right course of action, this issue coming to light is allowing production to have these conversations, input protocol, raise awareness, and change for the better.
Of course, she is then voted out of the game, with the harasser (Dan) not hiding his pleasure. Ugly, as I said before.
Second, the game highlighted how false claims of sexual harassment can have far ranging impact too. Before she is voted out, Kellee talks to various female players and seemingly gets her views on Dan confirmed. Except that some other players didn’t feel the same way as Kellee but rather played up their “fears” to help sway votes. Those players help persuade another one (Janet) who ends up feeling like she needs to protect others. But in doing so, those other female players completely undermined the legitimate issues raised by Kellee. Those players have since apologized for using her accusations as “gameplay”. But the damage they did has been done.
As one article put it, the episode revealed “a bleak representation of how instances of sexual impropriety can play out in real life.”
Third, the episode also highlighted how bystanders use their own experiences to exacerbate the issue. After Kellee was voted out, her supporter (Janet) was left to feel that she had been played. And then a fellow player attacked her for speaking up in support! The male player (Aaron) said: “And what’s happening now is that the victim role is being assigned by Janet and instead of taking responsibility…is trying to spin this into something…. If this was truly a general tribe concern I would have been involved…”
Ah yes, the “if it was really sexual harassment, I would’ve known about it” line. Ugh. Although Aaron has also since issued a tearful apology for his actions (lots of apologies this week), the damage has already been done.
As an article on The Ringer highlighted:
As Kellee noted in her clear-eyed confessional, the episode parallels with how these situations often play out in real life. Kellee experienced behavior that made her uncomfortable—perhaps even unsafe—but didn’t feel empowered to act on it until she heard the same from others around her. Even then, she feared that if she spoke out, it would impact her status in the game. When the situation boiled over, Kellee’s concerns were weaponized by bad-faith actors and minimized by others. Many of the men in the situation were hopelessly ignorant of their own roles or that of those around them. And above all, the true victim ended up suffering the largest consequences—and the wrongdoers moved ahead mostly unscathed. It was a depressing glimpse at the dynamics of sexual harassment—and how so few people can follow their moral compasses in such situations.
For employers, there are a ton of lessons to be learned here. The way this episode played out reveals some of the same dynamics that happen in the workplace. Women are reluctant to speak out about sexual harassment because they fear the impact on their jobs and when they do speak out, they have their worst fears realized. And bystanders do nothing claiming that if it was really bad, they would’ve known.
As for my watching of “Survivor”, I’ll confess that this episode left so much to be desired. The producers seemed to have dropped the ball and it’s hard to root for anyone (beyond Janet) left when so many players did the opposite of what they should’ve done. People did the opposite of what they should do in the situation — all for the sake of winning a game worth $1 million.
Let’s just hope when it comes time for your employees to make the right decisions, they value your policies and procedures over money.