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Naked Men Search for What Matters Most: Susan Antilla

(Corrects column published Sept. 21 to delete reference in sixth paragraph to Landmark Education, which runs traditional seminars in business settings. Deletes quote in seventh paragraph.)

Sept. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Hey guys, if the boss told you to pack up for a weekend seminar of treats like getting naked with a bunch of other men, passing around a wooden phallus, and working toward a more “mature sense of masculinity,” you’d get with the program, wouldn’t you?

You know, spilling your guts about those childhood traumas and then storming into the sweat lodge with your new pals, agreeing along the way to a lifelong pledge to keep it all secret from the outside world? Kind of like the way it works at the office for some of you.

Fun as it all might sound, a lawyer in California took offense when his boss suggested that it would be a good idea to sign up for the $650 New Warrior Training Adventure, described on the website of a group called the ManKind Project as “a modern male initiation and self-examination.”

In a lawsuit filed in a California court on Aug. 31, Steven Eggleston, a chiropractor-turned-negligence lawyer, said he was getting paid $15,000 a month until he refused to go to a secluded warrior weekend in the mountains of Santa Barbara. Before you knew it, Eggleston’s compensation was down to zero, according to the complaint, and the boss had gotten so hostile that Eggleston says he had to quit.

Warrior Weekend

Brian Chase, one of Eggleston’s former bosses and a partner at Bisnar/Chase LLP in Newport Beach, California, says it’s true that the firm’s owner, John Bisnar, suggested Eggleston go to the warrior weekend, but it was “not a requirement of employment.” The firm had an agreement to pay Eggleston a draw against the business he brought in, and Eggleston owed the firm money by the time he left, Chase said. He said there was no retaliation.

It isn’t unheard-of for a company to dispatch employees to so-called boot camps that promise to improve interpersonal skills or even transform their sometimes-miserable lives. One is Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica Inc., known for its line of athletic wear. It has gone so far as to require franchisees to attend seminars run by a self-help group.

People aren’t always gung-ho about signing up for the touchy-felly boot camps, though, as the Eggleston lawsuit illustrates. Objections come up in particular when there’s a chance someone’s going to suggest you take off your clothes. And if you’re Steven Eggleston, and the boss is saying he might be coming along for the sometimes-nudie weekend, it’s got to be a real buzz kill to think you could be passing that wooden dildo around the room in front of the guy who signs your paycheck.

Google Search

Eggleston says he learned about what ManKind refers to on its website as “a carved wooden phallus” by doing a Google search that also unearthed reports of the 2005 suicide of a 29-year-old man who shot himself two weeks after attending a warrior weekend outside of Houston.

George Daranyi, chairman of the ManKind Project International, said in an e-mail that a lawsuit brought by the man’s parents “was settled confidentially with no admission of wrongdoing or responsibility,” and noted that the suit was brought against the local Houston operation, not the international organization.

Eggleston, of course, decided not to attend the warrior weekend, but Chase says that other employees at Bisnar/Chase have made the plunge and “always said it’s a great thing.”

Clothing Optional

Mankind says it’s a great thing, too, and defends its programs.

Its executive director, Carl Griesser, posted a lengthy response on the Web after a Houston newspaper reported that people attending Mankind seminars were -- imagine -- taking their clothes off. Griesser set the record straight on that, pointing out that, well, sometimes people at the seminars do indeed take their clothes off.

The Eggleston complaint doesn’t name ManKind as a defendant, but it does say that all that penis-passing and sweat-lodge stuff is the basis of a sexual harassment charge. Chase called the suit a frivolous “shakedown.”

Neither side has an easy case in the view of Harvard Law School professor Janet Halley. But if Eggleston prevails, he is likely to have been helped by the argument that his bosses “brought sex into the workplace in a way that was hostile,” she says.

There’s nothing sexual about the optional nudity that goes on at New Warrior Training Adventures, ManKind insists on its website. Maybe not to the instructors. But it sure didn’t sound platonic to a lawyer in California who’s launched a whole new genre of harassment suits, in which guys are determined to keep their pants on.

(Susan Antilla is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Susan Antilla in New York at santilla@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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