Team-Building or Torture? Court Will Decide.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
PROVO, Utah -- No one really disputes that Chad Hudgens was waterboarded outside a Provo office park last May 29, right before lunch, by his boss.
There is also general agreement that Hudgens volunteered for the "team-building exercise," that he lay on his back with his head downhill, and that co-workers knelt on either side of him, pinning the young sales rep down while their supervisor poured water from a gallon jug over his nose and mouth.
And it's widely acknowledged that the supervisor, Joshua Christopherson, then told the assembled sales team, whose numbers had been lagging: "You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales."
What's at issue in the lawsuit Hudgens filed against his former employers -- just as in the ongoing global debate over the CIA's waterboarding of terrorism suspects -- is the question of intent.
Prosper Inc. maintains that what the supervisor did, while unauthorized, overzealous and misguided, falls far short of torture, and in fact was not nearly as bad as Hudgens makes out in his quest for damages.
"We're not the mean waterboarding company that people think we are," said George Brunt, general counsel for the firm, which sells a combination of online and personalized instruction -- packaged as "coaching" and running $3,000 to $15,000 -- to customers who are solicited by telephone.
The morning Hudgens said he thought he was going to drown, his team was calling on behalf of "Trump University," pitching real estate instruction to people who had attended a Trump seminar. Prosper is doing well, with 500 employees and clients in 70 countries, senior executives said in an interview.
"I don't know if this would even be an issue if it weren't for Guantanamo Bay," Brunt said.
"How many times did the CIA even do waterboarding? Three times?" added Dave Ellis, the company president.
"But look at the damage it did to America's reputation," Brunt pointed out. "And it's going to hurt our image."
Indeed, Hudgens's lawsuit, filed Jan. 17 in Provo, suggests the testosterone-poisoned setting of the David Mamet play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Hudgens alleged that if the 10-person sales team went a day without a sale, members had to work the next day standing up; Christopherson took away their chairs. The team leader also threatened to draw a mustache in permanent marker on the face of sales people for "negativity," Hudgens said. Christopherson kept on his desk a piece of wood, "the 2-by-4 of motivation," he said.
Brunt and Ellis dispute all this. "When you meet Josh," Brunt said, "he's a nice, sensitive guy."