Boot-Camp Seminars: Over the Top?

If the experiences of one major bank are anything to go by, training meetings in corporate America need some serious rethinking. Back in April, a management "boot camp" run by JPMorgan Chase at a New Jersey conference center was struck by tragedy when an attendee hung himself. At that time, the organization said it would stop its hard-hitting seminars, but three weeks later, another Chase employee attending the same program in Connecticut suffered an anxiety attack that landed him in the hospital.

JPMorgan Chase declined to comment on the incidents, but anonymous attendees from the program told the New York Post of a "grueling week of back-to-back meetings and high-pressure projects that left little time for sleep."

Hard-core training programs are controversial, but they're still sometimes used. "There is no place for high- pressure, boot-camp training in corporate settings," insists Ira Chaleff, president of the Kensington, MD-based Executive Coaching and Consulting Associates. "Programs that employ a lot of high-pressure coercion and emulate military programs need to be questioned."

JPMorgan Chase used its extreme training strategy to prepare employees for a merger with BankOne, but may have fallen victim to a common problem companies face in hiring corporate trainers—there is no standard certification program in the industry, which makes it difficult to formulate appropriate training strategies. "It could be that leadership thought they were doing something positive," says Chaleff. "But if it was being received in a damaging way, there was a responsibility to rethink and modify their plans."

Fortunately, a formal certification program for corporate trainers is on the horizon. In May, the Alexandria, VA-based American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) released a study on workplace trends and the training industry, and announced plans to launch a pilot certification program for training professionals in 2005. "Credentialing will elevate the bar, in terms of standardizing the value that corporate trainers bring to organizations," says Jennifer Naughton, manager of the certification program. "It's about organizations getting a better understanding of how training initiatives impact the bottom line, as well as employee learning and development."

ASTD's goal is to create a certification program which will benefit trainers as well as the organizations that hire them. "Because this certification program will be competency based it will define the field and create standards," says Naughton. "It will also benefit individual trainers by offering them a way to prove their value and provide employers with a reference point to help them evaluate job candidates."

In the meantime, word-of-mouth referrals continue to be the main strategy corporations use for finding competent trainers. That's why Chaleff strongly recommends that organizations diligently check corporate trainers' references.