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The Self-Help Movement Behind Lululemon's Eerie Dogma

New, 16 comments
Photo via the Lululemon Blog.
Photo via the Lululemon Blog.

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Like many retail jobs, working at yoga apparel company Lululemon comes with a few perks: steady pay, benefits, and free fitness classes.

Except Lululemon also pays for employees to attend Landmark Forum, a unique personal development seminar. Now, after the company's recent change in CEO, employees—former, and current—are split over whether Lululemon should continue its relationship with Landmark.

What is Landmark?

Started in 1991, Landmark, with 115 locations in 20 different countries, calls itself "an education in living." Its programs challenge participates to rethink "conventional perspectives and decision-making patterns," and provide tools to make "significant changes in their lives." In many cases, those who attend Landmark experience breakthrough results in the way they think and act. The program has gained such a strong following over the years that many have described its fan loyalty with the litigious c-word.

"Landmark shines a light on something that people didn't even know was there. It creates awareness of basic structures in which they know, think, and act," Landmark's Deborah Beroset Miller, who is based in Chicago and has lead Landmark programs for over eight years, told Racked. "Once people have this awareness, it creates a fundamental shift, which is the most powerful attribute of the program. You walk in, and at the end, find that you are able to think beyond and act past views and limits we originally had."

Screenshot from the Landmark site

Landmark's seminars are based off the philosophy of Werner Erhard, an author and lecturer on transformational models who created Erhard Seminars Training (referred to as est). The company's three-day session costs $500, and after nine months at Lululemon, yoga apparel employees are encouraged to attend with Lululemon covering the cost. Many companies, including Panda Express, also pay for employees to attend Landmark. Apple, Mercedes Benz, Reebok International, and NASA use the consulting services of Vanto, a Landmark company, according to Beroset Miller. The forum is beneficial for confidence and self esteem, she said, and while Landmark does not directly discuss work ethic, it touches on themes of "integrity, self expression, authenticity, effectiveness, accomplishments," and other factors that contribute to overall success in the workplace.

"Landmark isn't about fixing flaws, it's for people who are ready to get to the next level in life and want a positive permanent shift. We talk about what's important, what's in the way, and what it means to have responsibility," she added.

Chip Wilson, Lululemon's founder and former CEO. Photo by Getty Images.

Lululemon's involvement with Landmark

Lululemon's affiliation with Landmark ties back to its founder and former CEO, Dennis "Chip" Wilson. The Canadian philanthropist came from a divorced home where money was a struggle, and he told CNN earlier this year he had a controlling mentality which hurt him as a manager.

"I started up a couple of companies, but I could only get them to a certain point, and they would virtually go into bankruptcy because everything had to go through me," Wilson told CNN.

Wilson said he was able to identify his professional and personal weaknesses after attending Landmark. The forum had such tremendous impact on his life that Wilson built Landmark into Lululemon's foundation. Aside from paying and encouraging employees to attend the forum, Wilson incorporated goal setting and integrity analysis into Lululemon's work culture. By folding Landmark into the Lululemon picture, Wilson said he's developed "a linguistic abstraction that allows us to talk in a speed that other companies I don't believe can."

Photo by Driely S.

Landmark ideologies make the workplace difficult, some say

Elizabeth Licorish, a 28-year-old freelance writer from Philadelphia who worked for Lululemon in 2011, said Landmark tactics embedded in Lululemon's ideology made her work environment cutthroat and hostile.

"Having a transparent work environment where criticism and feedback is frequent seems good in theory, but it made the workplace feel like a pressure cooker," Licorish said. "They had this passive aggressive way to encourage you. Part of their new training model is for employees to give feedback but it often was attacking personal weaknesses or even pointing out that your mood is slightly negative."

In addition to fitness obsession, Lululemon claims to have a vision of "creating components for people to live long, healthy and fun lives," and "elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness." But Licorish said Lululemon employees are spoon-fed Landmark language, frequenting words like "integrity," and "authenticity" to implement "Lululemon's social hierarchy." Using Landmark strategies, Lululemon is also heavily focused on goal setting and character development.

"As part of the job, Lululemon required you to write life-long goals and post them in the store. It was a bizarre, invasive procedure where they try to goal-coach you as part of their many grooming tactics," she said.

While attending Landmark is not mandatory for Lululemon employees, actively choosing not to attend could be detrimental for progress in the work place, Licorish added.

Screenshot via Landmark.

"When my manager brought up Landmark at a meeting, she said that it was a gift that Lululemon gave to its employees. We did not have to accept the gift, but if we didn't, we had to reevaluate our goals and how we align with the company," she said. "If you decided not to go, they would find a way to phase you out."

Licorish eventually left Lululemon without attending the Landmark Forum, deciding their manipulation and character attacks were enough to make someone psychologically vulnerable. She was not surprised when hearing about 28-year-old Brittany Norwood, a Lululemon employee who murdered her 30-year-old co-worker, Jayna Murray, in 2011 inside a Lululemon store—an event which made many question Lululemon's work atmosphere.

Rachel W from New York City, who asked that her last name be withheld, had a similar experience working for Lululemon last year. Rachel accepted a retail position while applying to graduate school, and said she was alarmed at the work culture starting from day one.

"My interview consisted of a group yoga class, where management would analyze my downward dog. I was confused by the format, but the company seemed focused on a group strategy of expressing themselves, which I thought would be nurturing," Rachel said.

"The tension rose, to the point where I was reprimanded for having bad days. They expected you to constantly reevaluate goals, which I thought was ironic," Rachel added. "The company sells gear for yoga, an ancient practice that preaches a holistic lifestyle. But when it comes to employees, they impose a desired façade of how their employees look, act, and feel. That is not holistic."

Rachel attended Landmark on Lululemon's dime, and said the program seemed beneficial for many participants who were looking to share experiences from traumatic events.

"They go through several levels of what they call "distinctions" and there was a lot of encouragement to open up about past experiences which might hinder future explorations," she said. "Some even strived for public humiliation, citing it as a break-through. I didn't think it was for me, but I felt pressure to attend because all my coworkers had."

Image from Shutterstock

Many find Landmark ideologies helpful in the workplace

Not everyone views Landmark Forum as a negative movement. A plethora of Landmark attendees swear by the positive experience evoked through Landmark's education, and cite lessons that have been life changing. According to an independent study by the Talent Foundation in 2000, individuals who participated in Landmark for two years showed higher levels of motivation and proactive attitudes, and were more confident in learning and applying new skills in the work place. According to Landmark's website, one third of Forum graduates' income rose 25 percent after participating and 94 percent attribute their success to the program.

Tiffani Barton, a 34-year-old Missouri native who lives in New York and works for Niche Media, said her Landmark experience was inspiring and helped her deal with issues head on.

"What Landmark does is really unique, and every individual is going to have a different outlook. There are things you know and things you know that you don't know, and they show you things you didn't know that you didn't know," Barton said. "I learned to identify ways of thinking that were holding me back. It was really incredible to realize how my past was affecting my day-to-day thinking. I know Landmark has a bad reputation, and they address that right away in their seminars. It's not about breaking down personalities, it merely opens your eyes to see a different way to think."

Barton seemed to struggle when asked about specific examples of how Landmark altered her thought process—a reaction Landmark enthusiasts frequently have when asked to elaborate on their experience, which Beroset Miller said is common.

"How can you convey an experience to someone who hasn't had that experience?" asked Beroset Miller, when pressed about Landmark's eerie tendency towards secrecy and privacy. "We can't spell out specific details of our program to the general public because it's intellectual property, but a lot of information is on our site and available. It's hard to explain: you can't describe riding a bike to someone whose never rode a bike."

A Lululemon employee at a Los Angeles location, who requested her name not be printed, told Racked that Lululemon's work culture and adaption of Landmark ideologies has helped her work ethic.

"The lifestyle is there if you want it, but they don't force it on you," she said. "Attending Landmark helped me work on integrity, like coming to work on time, for example. I sort of had this 'eureka' moment and the culture at Lululemon reinforces what I try to accomplish. The employees are all on board to help each other work towards are goals, the vibes are always positive and we support each other through struggles."

Photo by Driely S.

Will the Lululemon/Landmark relationship continue?

The Lululemon Los Angeles employee said there had been chatter in the store recently over whether Landmark would continue to be an employee perk after the company's many shakeups. Last month, following an interview with Bloomberg TV where Wilson took shots at women whose thighs rub together, he announced that he was stepping down as chairman of Lululemon's board and Michael Casey, formerly of Starbucks, would replaced him. Christine Day also stepped down as CEO and Laurent Potdevin of Toms Shoes was appointed CEO last month.

Lululemon would not comment on its relationship with Landmark. The employee said she hoped her employer would continue its relationship with Landmark, regardless of Wilson's involvement with the company, because she felt the program was ultimately more beneficial then harmful.

"I think everyone wants to learn how to be a happy and effective employee, and the company has figured out a way to create an atmosphere where that's possible," she said.