Employees of a direct-marketing insurance company in Durban have turned to the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) to save them from a leadership course in which they say they will be sworn at, belittled and made to cross-dress and sing nursery rhymes — or face being fired.
Employees of The Unlimited said the Turning Point and Spring Joy course — which costs R25,000 a head — will be held over five days in Gauteng next month. During this time their cellphones will be confiscated and they will be barred from communicating with their families, will have limited bathroom breaks and will have to endure “tough and challenging” role-playing games and activities that run until the early hours of the morning.
But the company, which sells data, sim cards and medical insurance, has defended the mandatory workshops as part of its commitment to “building future leaders”.
In a letter to the HRC from about a dozen people who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, employees voiced concern about the course content after hearing about it from colleagues and former colleagues. The employees have asked the commission to investigate the company for ordering them to go on the course or face dismissal.
“They are forcing employees to participate in controversial transformational workshops that have nothing to do with workplace skills, and it is either you do it or you get dismissed,” staff say in the letter. “What is making things worse is the fact that these courses have controversial reviews and there are allegations of brainwashing, verbal and physical abuse, sleep deprivation and being like a cult.”
The Sunday Times spoke to three current and former employees who said the courses “break you down to build you up” and are known to trigger people psychologically. This is harmful to employee wellness, they said.
A former employee who left the company a few years ago after attending a course run by transformation facilitator Steven Gullan, said it involves participants swearing at each other, parading in bikinis, sexual degradation and a naming ceremony during which a participant was rocked while being serenaded by fellow participants.
The employee said the course — based on neurolinguistic programming — broke her and led to her having a stroke after high blood pressure and anxiety.
“For months afterwards, I would break down if I heard someone say 'The Unlimited' or heard it on television. Their whole corporate ethos is aimed at manipulation and control. They had pins and scarves as badges of honour, a different way of speaking, and people couldn't just walk, they had to walk with purpose.”
She said people are afraid to speak out because they have been headhunted and relocated to Durban, paid very well and become financially dependent.
The Unlimited CEO Andrew Wood said he is “concerned” that staff complained about having to go on the workshop when it had been “deliberately explained” to them during their recruitment process.
He said staff were told that the context of the course was in keeping with a corporate culture aimed at developing leaders, though employees were not given the specifics of what it entailed.
“I have been on the course twice, once mandatory and the second time voluntarily. In my experience it is tough and challenging and not for everyone but I am not aware of the cross-dressing and the swearing. There have been about 1,000 employees who have gone on this course and we don’t know of anyone who has been negatively impacted from a psychological point of view,” said Wood.
Wood said he was aware that one woman said she had bipolar disorder and was excused from attending.
He said staff were “reminded about the upcoming course and the contractual obligations” in terms of compulsory attendance during a routine weekly engagement session recently.
“Two people resigned because we are effectively enforcing the contractual agreement. We didn't force them to resign, they chose to leave.”
Wood said the course is run by Royee Banai, whose late father, medical doctor Baruch Banai, founded the Insight Centre in Gauteng as a life coach.
The website is inactive and efforts to contact Banai via a contact number listed under the Insight Centre, as well as through a facilitator, Mkhuseli Ciyo, who works with him and Wood, were unsuccessful.
Specific questions about the course content, allegations of abuse, sleep deprivation and employees' concerns about being ordered to attend the course were not answered by Banai or Ciyo.
Wood said staff will pay 20% of the course fee as part of a new model because there does not seem to be “commitment” from staff.
HRC KwaZulu-Natal head Lloyd Lotz confirmed receipt of the complaint and said it would be assessed.
Clinical psychologist Nazia Iram Osman said for any therapeutic intervention to be effective or “transformational”, it has to have the client’s informed consent.
R25 000 - the cost of the course, which was introduced about 15 years ago by company founder Iain Buchan.
1,000 - the approximate number of staff who have attended the mandatory courses over the past 10 years.
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