Eager to improve his performance at work, Dong Shik Kim didn't mind when his boss asked him two years ago to enroll in a special training seminar. Kim thought he might find some new ways to increase sales and improve morale among fellow employees at a big produce market near Atlanta.
Instead, Kim says, the sessions - some of them 15 hours long - became a nightmare. He claims that consultants running the seminar bullied employees into tearful confessions about intimate and heart-wrenching episodes in their lives. The consultants, Kim says, also pressured participants to totally commit themselves to their employers and to believe that "the world is whatever man says it is" because people create their own reality.
"The sessions put people into a hibernating state," Kim says. "They ask for total loyalty. It's like brainwashing."
Faced with the choice, Kim says, of staying in the program or losing his job, he quit. But he didn't give up the fight.
Kim and seven other former employees of DeKalb Farmers Market recently sued the business and its consulting firm. The plaintiffs charge that they were forced out of their jobs for objecting to a "new age quasi-religious cult" that they contend was developed by Werner Erhard , founder of the human potential movement known as est.
The suit is part of an emerging backlash against employers who try to boost productivity by requiring workers to take part in so-called human potential seminars, motivational programs designed to change workers' values, attitudes and self-esteem.
Some workers, including Kim and his co-plaintiffs, maintain that the "new age" programs are indoctrination that challenges their religious beliefs. Other workers say the programs cause mental anguish by manipulating emotions, and some object on the grounds that their privacy is violated by any required instruction that focuses on attitudes instead of skill development.
But many businesses, including a number of the nation's biggest industrial concerns, press ahead with offbeat training seminars that involve group therapy-type sessions, meditation or self-hypnosis. Amid widespread concern about the quality and commitment of the American work force, human potential programs have been regarded in some quarters as a welcome innovation for unleashing creativity, breaking down outdated organizational barriers and simply getting workers to take fresh approaches.
"The world is changing very fast and American business is looking for ways to deal with change," said Michael Ray, who teaches business management innovation at Stanford University. "The old ways don't seem to be working very well."
The new breed of training seminars, however, has forced businesses and workers alike to grapple with an important issue: Where do you draw the line between legitimate productivity-boosting activities and intrusive programs that may clash with an individual's deeply held personal beliefs?
Still in its early phases, the challenge to some of the human potential programs is already prompting some rethinking among corporate executives.
"All of this will make more companies more careful," said Curtis Plott, executive vice president of the American Society for Training and Development, a trade association based in Alexandria, Va. "They're going to ask, 'Is this going to be a potential problem?' "
One of the first flaps over human potential training came in 1987 at San Francisco-based Pacific Bell, California's biggest phone company. The program, developed by an outside consultant, was designed to enhance problem-solving and efficiency.
Many of the recent flaps have wound up in court or administrative hearings. In a pending suit filed in state court in Pierce County, Washington, Steven Hiatt, a former sales manager for a Tacoma car dealership, charges that he was fired because he objected to training materials that presented concepts inimical to his Christian values. The program emphasized self-will rather than God's will, Hiatt asserted.