Employers' 'New Age' Training Programs Lead to Lawsuits Over Workers' Rights

Wall Street Journal/January 9, 1989
By Martha Brannigan

Atlanta -- When co-workers told Franklin Marsengill that, because of religious reasons, they didn't want to participate in a training program urged by their employer, the DeKalb Farmers Market Inc., he said he wasn't going-- and that they didn't have to either.

''I told them, 'Don't join. This is America, and if you don't want to, you don't have to,' '' recalls Mr. Marsengill, who was the market's security director. ''I didn't go. Look where it got me.''

Where it got Mr. Marsengill was out on the street, he says. In a suit filed in federal court here in December, he and seven other former employees of the local farmers market say they were fired or pressured to quit after objecting to the Forum human-potential sessions developed by Werner Erhard & Associates.

The former employees say the Forum sessions, held outside of work, as well as separate programs introduced at the market by Consulting Technologies Inc., a consulting firm, clashed with their religious beliefs, which range from Christianity to Hinduism. They are asking the court to enjoin the market from forcing workers to attend the sessions, which their attorneys describe as ''New Age.'' The suit seeks back pay as well as damages for psychological trauma the workers say they suffered.

Whatever its merits, the case marks a growing trend. The burgeoning use of so-called New Age training programs on the job is spawning legal challenges by employees with religious and philosophical objections -- and raising new questions about the rights of employers and workers.

Training programs described as New Age vary widely and draw on a myriad of sources, from Eastern mysticism to positive thinking. Some include traditional management training methods in communicating and cooperation. Others use meditation and hypnosis.

Dong Shik Kim, a Korean-born Christian who was a supervisor at the DeKalb market, claims in the suit that he went to the Forum sessions at his boss's behest only to encounter ''emotional confessions, psychological conditioning and programming'' designed to produce a breakthrough ''equivalent to being'born again.' '' Mr. Kim says he was urged to shed his beliefs and see the world through new eyes. In the suit, he says that Robert Blazer, the market'sowner, urged him to recruit subordinates and, when he balked, made work conditions so difficult he had to quit.

Ranjana Sampat, a bookkeeper and member of the Hindu faith, says in the suit that in another program at the market she was asked to confess intimate details of her life, including sexual relations.

The market denies the allegations. Edward D. Buckley III, an attorney for the market and Mr. Blazer, says workers were encouraged, not coerced, to go to the Forum sessions, which were held outside of work. He adds that ideas introduced at the market by Consulting Technologies weren't religious or philosophical and didn't impinge on employees' personal beliefs.

Jan Smith, co-owner of Consulting Technologies, based in North Miami Beach, Fla., declines to discuss the suit. She says, however, that the company is a ''typical management consulting company,'' and ''not at all New Age.''The Forum, which wasn't named in the suit, says it would never sanction coercing people to participate in its programs.

The training programs now in vogue at some companies are raising new legal questions because of their scope, says Herbert Rosedale, a New York attorney and president of the American Family Foundation, which monitors groups that use coercive persuasion and in 1987 sponsored a seminar on New Age training in business. He says the training sometimes goes beyond improved job performance and aims to alter employees' fundamental beliefs.

''The issue is what is permitted interference by an employer into an employee's life,'' Mr. Rosedale says. ''Suppose an employer says you should attend a New Age program and sit under a pyramid?''

Most consulting firms, especially those catering to Fortune 500 companies, eschew the New Age label, which they say conjures up notions of cultism and the bizarre. They assert that their programs aren't religious or manipulative and don't intrude on personal beliefs.

But many critics, such as Kevin Garvey, a Hamden, Conn., consultant on psychological training, say problems arise when the programs include controversial psychological techniques dealing with theology. Employees should be informed of the techniques beforehand, Mr. Garvey says, and allowed to choose whether to attend. ''Otherwise it constitutes a forced religious conversion,'' says Mr. Garvey.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination based on religion as well as race, sex, age or national origin, requires an employer to ''reasonably accommodate'' a worker's religious beliefs unless it creates ''undue hardship.'' Until recently, though, most cases of religious freedom on the job involved issues such as allowing a worker to have the day off on the Sabbath.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it increasingly is seeing complaints about training programs that employees say infringe on their religious rights. In September, the agency issued a policy-guidance notice saying that New Age training programs can be handled under traditional Title VII guidelines. If a worker challenges a training session on religious grounds, the EEOC says, employers must provide a ''reasonable accommodation''unless it creates an ''undue hardship'' on the business.

In a suit filed in 1987 and set for trial next December in state court in Pierce County, Wash., Steven Hiatt sued Walker Chevrolet, a Tacoma car dealership, claiming he was fired as a sales manager after objecting that a program called ''New Age Thinking to Increase Dealership Profitability''conflicted with his religion. In the suit, Mr. Hiatt says he and his wife were sent to a five-day session offered by the Pacific Institute but left after deciding it was un-Christian.

Jack Maichel, an attorney for Walker Chevrolet, says Mr. Hiatt was fired because of his job performance, not objections to the program. Jack Fitterer, president of the Pacific Institute, a Seattle firm that provides cognitive-psychology training, says the sessions ''in no way touch on personal belief systems or religion.''

William Gleaton, one of the first workers to complain about New Age training, sued Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., in federal court in Albany, Ga., in 1985, alleging, among other things, that he was fired as human-resources manager at the company's Albany plant after refusing to permit a training program.

The case was settled out of court on undisclosed terms, but Mr. Gleaton says he sometimes regrets giving up the battle.

''I just didn't have the money to fight it,'' says Mr. Gleaton, who felt the program went against his religious beliefs as a Christian. ''But there are constitutional issues to be raised here. Individuals may want to be loyal to a company but have a personal conflict.''

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