Be wary of employers who prey on your commitment to work and colleagues and who use manipulative language about team and family, as Billy McFarland once did, according to the new Netflix documentary “Fyre.”
The chronicle of the disastrous 2017 Fyre Festival details how McFarland and his enablers promised a “once-in-a-lifetime” luxury music experience but ultimately left hundreds of attendees and workers stranded in the Bahamas due to poor planning, shoddy management and outright lies.
“Fyre” is an infuriating film to watch, but of all the moments in the documentary, I cannot stop thinking about one exchange that highlights how bad leaders can manipulate the trust of their employees by calling on their loyalty to a greater good.
Even as it became increasingly clear the festival was not going to meet the expectations of its flashy promotional video or the $12,780 price tag of a four-person package, the employees and consultants around McFarland kept working hard to put on the event. In the most memorable transgression of professional boundaries, event producer Andy King recalled how McFarland told him he needed to take “one big thing for the team” and go fellate a customs officer in order to get the festival’s trucks filled with Evian water into the country. It would “save” the festival, King recalled McFarland said.
“I literally drove home, took a shower, I drank some mouthwash,” King said. He had internalized the call to be the best team player to a new extreme.
“Can you imagine, in my 30 years of a career, that this is what I was going to do?” King said. “I was going to do that, honestly, to save the festival.”
It is shocking to hear allegations of how a leader overtly requested that an employee perform a sexual favor to get business done. It is even more shocking to hear how willing King said he was to follow McFarland’s marching orders. (It turned out the customs officer holding the water only wanted the reasonable request of being paid on time.) But the anecdote underscores how bad management can build an atmosphere in which inappropriate behavior starts to look normal and can even become celebrated as a necessary requirement to be a good team member or, in even worse language, a “family” member.
Be cautious of employers calling work a family
Even McFarland’s employees who were not directly involved in the festival suffered from the fallout after its ugly cancellation. The festival started as a promotional event for a Fyre app that was intended to be the “Uber of booking talent,” as one person put it.
After the festival collapsed and Fyre became a punchline, McFarland held an unconvincing meeting to rally his employees to keep working on new projects. “He was saying, ‘We are a family. It’s time for us to band together,’” Shiyuan Deng, a former Fyre Media employee, recalled.
Using the language of families is a common refrain within the workplace ― some employees call their co-workers “work spouses” or “work moms” ― but using that intimate language can blur professional and personal boundaries, building up false expectations of how a company will support its employees.
Family is a personal concept that varies across cultures, but, as a general rule, your membership in a good family is not conditional upon what you do. Families and employers can both give you respect and a sense of belonging, but the love and safety found in belonging to a family are different from the satisfaction of belonging to a work team. Work teams can be temporary, and they are transactional by their foundation. Families do not fire you and swap you out.
This is not to say that the bonds you make at work are not strong and emotional. We spend more than 2,000 hours a year working with colleagues, but pay inequities and layoffs serve as reminders that these bonds can be built upon an unstable structure in which not everyone is seen equally.
Deng said in the documentary that she did not buy McFarland’s “family” argument, either. “We’re not a family. You won’t even tell me anything! You’ve completely violated all the trust that we had in the product, in the company, in the brand and in you,” she recalled thinking.
Later, we hear McFarland tell employees in an all-hands meeting, “We’re not firing anybody. We’re just letting you know there will be no payroll in the short term,” which, as Deng points out, is an action that disqualified staff from filing for unemployment benefits.
A court eventually saw through McFarland’s double-speak, and he was sentenced in October to six years in federal prison for fraud. But there is no tidy resolution. Other people in the film who were involved in the festival are still making new ventures; Ja Rule, one of the festival’s co-founders, and who called McFarland his “brother,” has a new talent booking platform.
The leaders behind Fyre Festival are not the first or last managers of a team that will ask you to make work your priority. Bad bosses motivate this prioritization through the loving language of families and the urgent talk of top-performing teams. As festival consultant Marc Weinstein put it, “the appeal was to be part of creating something that was special, and that desire overcame my inner wisdom, which was like, ‘This is a mess.’”
Unlike some of the people in the “Fyre” documentary, though, you can learn to avoid the pitfalls by remembering that work is a business, no matter what your boss says or how great your job is. Invest in yourself first.