5 Lessons from Lost on Hiring, Safety, and Other Workplace Issues

May 19, 2010 - by: HR Hero 5 COMMENTS

By Alan King and Tony Kessler

At first glance, you might think a TV show featuring plane crash survivors on a remote Pacific island — with time travel and an evil smoke monster thrown in to boot — would yield few if any insights into how to run a great workplace. But as the six-year run of the hit series Lost comes to a climactic conclusion this weekend, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out some important HR and employment lessons we’ve noticed along the way.

Some lessons have been obvious. For example, when hiring-agent Rose Nadler earlier this season looked askance at John Locke’s application to tackle a construction foreman position, apparently because he was sitting in a wheelchair and wasn’t “being realistic” about his job abilities, she appeared to be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As much as we have loved Rose both on the island and off (in the parallel universe that sprang up after Juliette apparently detonated the atomic bomb in the final episode of Season 5), she didn’t appear to take the time to consider whether Locke could perform the foreman job duties with a reasonable accommodation.

Some lessons have been less obvious. Here are five we think you should keep in mind as you watch Sunday’s final episode.

Only the lonely isn’t a great talent pool
In last Tuesday’s penultimate episode, island protector (and ghostlike figure) Jacob finally passed the torch of responsibility to Jack Shephard, but that occurred only after a long, harrowing search process that spanned six TV seasons and several generations of the characters’ lives (sometimes within the same 60-minute episode, thanks to the aforementioned time travel). After taking a bullet through her left shoulder, Kate Austen and the other “candidates” felt like they deserved to know why they had been selected to be in this particular talent pool. Jacob’s explanation didn’t mince words: Neither she, nor Hurley (Hugo Reyes), nor Sawyer (James Ford), nor Jack had anything else going on in their lives. All were down and out and alone.

Maybe having nothing to lose is a good qualification for a job that requires the new hire to fight a smoke monster to its death. And we of course hope Jack succeeds in his quest. But you should probably seek a more diverse set of applicants when you’re filling a real-life job. Sure, we’ve all seen people whose “jobs become their lives,” which appears to be Jack’s fate, provided he lives. But in most instances, you’ll be better served if your employees enjoy well-rounded lives off the company island. They will bring more balance and perspective to their work.

I’m glad it wasn’t me, dude
On the plus side, when the moment of choosing finally arrives, Jacob doesn’t push Jack into the possible dead-end job of protecting the island’s light source from the smoke monster. Instead, Jacob lets the four remaining candidates mull their options, and Jack steps forward. He volunteers. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever bring a set of candidates together and ask them to self-select who gets a job or assignment. Nevertheless, you’ll be better served if you make the extra effort to match the task or duty with a worker who brings the most desire and commitment to get it done. Jack has that passion and symbolically drinks Jacob’s Kool-Aid, which, by the way, we don’t recommend for most workplaces. Because Jack has chosen to take on the task of protecting the island (an option Jacob never had), we expect Jack will have a better chance to succeed.

Hurley, on the other hand, voices what Kate and Sawyer also must have been thinking to themselves when he understates: “I’m glad it wasn’t me.” What a dude. We hope he survives the final episode, too.

Don’t overlook existing talent
Desmond Hume has come a long way from his early days of working (against his will) for the Dharma Initiative, when his job was to sit alone in a remote outpost and punch a button exactly every 108 minutes to prevent the island from blowing up (or something to that effect). It was mind-numbing work that almost drove him crazy. He was clearly underemployed.

As we approached the final episode, Desmond became the first character to realize there might be a connection between the island and what’s happening in the alternate universe. While we don’t necessarily condone his methods, he is leaving no stone unturned to gather the key characters back together for a final resolution of the battle between good and evil. In Tuesday’s episode alone, Desmond beat up a defenseless teacher, got himself thrown into jail, and bribed a guard (with Hurley’s help) to free two other key island refugees (Kate and Sayid) who had been languishing in jail for one reason or another. Again, this doesn’t sound like a recipe to win an Employee of the Month Award, but Desmond’s actions could end up saving the world as we know it. We reserve the right to withhold final judgment on his actions until the final episode is over.

In the meantime, look around and make sure you aren’t underemploying your own Desmond. It’s well documented that many people have stepped up to take on additional tasks and roles during the recession. Still, you may find someone who has been lying low and punching buttons, afraid to speak up and happy just to have a job. Keep your eye open for employees with potential to do more for your company. That’s where we often find some of our best talent — hidden in plain view.

Poor communication can be fatal
One of Lost‘s constant themes has been the problems that arise when there is a failure to communicate. And those are just as true in your workplace as they are on the island. Miscommunication and doubt have permeated the crash survivors’ lives on the island. As TV viewers, we’ve spent many hours trying to decipher cryptic numbers and messages scribbled on the Dharma station hatch or on the hand of a drowning Charlie or relayed through a lighthouse tower’s magic mirrors by the sometimes manipulative Jacob.

Here is another deadly example: In one of the early seasons, Michael, another crash survivor, went on a mission to rescue his son, Walt, who had been taken hostage by a mysterious, seminative group known as The Others. To secure Walt’s release, Michael had to free longtime-island-figure Benjamin Linus, who was being held in a bunker by Michael’s comrades from Flight 815. To sneak Ben out, Michael felt he had to shoot Ana Lucia, and then he shot Libby when she came to investigate the commotion. Rather than simply explain the situation to them and enlist their help, Michael shot them dead. If he had taken a moment to talk, they might have cooperated and lived to experience another episode.

All of those devices worked well to propel and prolong the TV series, but you don’t want your employees to experience the same uncertainty about your messages and goals for them. In real life, they’d tell you, “I’m not going any further until you tell me exactly what’s going on.” In other words, no more Kool-Aid for us today, dude.

Ditto for overlooking safety risks
Sometimes the safety dangers in your workplace are so obvious that employees may forget they’re there or they don’t pay proper respect. Even when you think EVERYONE should know that they shouldn’t play around with the paper cutter, make sure you post the proper safeguards and keep your workplace as safe as possible.

Here is another good example from Lost: If you have a nuclear warhead on the premises, make it difficult if not impossible for employees who don’t belong in the restricted area to gain access and set off a huge mushroom-cloud blast. On the island, an old warhead was buried underground, and some of the castaways devised a plan to drop it into a hole at a work site operated by the mysterious Dharma Initiative. In Season 5′s final episode, however, the security around the work site seemed ragtag and rather lackadaisical, which allowed Jack and others to storm the site and detonate the bomb. They were hoping to destroy all remnants of the island and return themselves to their original preisland existence (it’s a long story, please just trust us). The blast was apparently fatal to Juliette.

If the island had been a U.S. protectorate, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would have dispatched a time-traveling inspector to the contaminated site immediately after the blast. Heads would have rolled (in addition to Juliette’s). Somebody would have paid a big OSHA fine. Don’t let it happen to you. Scout out your problem areas and rope them off, if necessary, before someone gets hurt.

Finally, we have a “spoiler” guess
Don’t read any further if you don’t want us to spoil the final episode for you by letting you know who we think Jack’s ex-wife will be in the alternate universe. This is just a guess, mind you, but who else could it be but the lovely, heroic Juliette?!

Any other Lost workplace lessons you’d like to add? Please post a comment and share them!

This article features contributions from Sharon McKnight, Celeste Blackburn, and Clint Watson.

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5 COMMENTS

1 Philip Miles
08:58:55, 20/05/10

I watched Lost once. Some guy (who REALLY liked Mama Cass) lived in an underground bunker on an island. It didn’t make any sense to me, so I turned it off. I guess the only lesson I can offer is: Pay attention from the beginning!

2 Alan King
12:30:15, 20/05/10

Philip,

That would be Desmond Hume. How he ended up in that bunker is a long story, but when we first see him, he is indeed listening to Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” Interestingly enough, the show has set him up to play a very pivotal role in this Sunday’s finale.

3 Frank Evans
10:15:33, 21/05/10

I felt burned by Twin Peaks, so I’m staying completely away from Lost. I did take a chance on Life On Mars, and it was wonderful to the end, but I had a much better gut feeling about that than Lost.

Spoiler Alert: Anyone who doesn’t expect Gilligan to pop up in the finale has much more faith in Hollywood’s screenwriters than I do.

4 Sharon McKnight
15:54:26, 21/05/10

More likely to be Bobby Ewing in the shower.

5 Kathy
16:30:45, 21/05/10

Seriously, you say “spoiler alert” at the END of this column? For those of us who DVR’ed this week’s episode and hadn’t watched it yet, that would have been appreciated at the beginning.

That said, I couldn’t help reading on, even once I knew you had included spoilers….

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