Exclusive: Therapist Enlisted To Help J.C. Penney Employees Cope Compares Retailer's Past 17 Months To 9/11

An organizational therapist brought in to help J.C. Penney employees cope with its management upheaval likened the experience to a bomb explosion and 9/11. Needless to say, it didn't go over well.

After more than a year of management and financial upheaval, J.C. Penney executives last month asked a therapist to address employees at an internal meeting. He ended up traumatizing them more.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, J.C. Penney chief merchant Liz Sweney brought in an organizational therapist to help employees cope with the firing of former CEO Ron Johnson in April and a disastrous year that saw revenue plummet $4.3 billion, or 25%. The pair proceeded to compare the experience to a bomb explosion and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The presentation was "offensive" to a number of employees, one source said, noting that the bomb analogy came just weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing.

A representative for J.C. Penney declined to comment.

The therapy session was part of a standard monthly meeting in May with J.C. Penney's merchandising division, sources said. Hundreds of employees attended the meeting either in person or via closed-circuit televisions.

In an address to her team, Sweney likened the past 17 months under Johnson to the detonation of a bomb. After Sweney's talk, the organizational therapist began his presentation by asking employees to turn to each other and change three things about themselves — remove an earring, for instance, or put their hair up in a ponytail — as a means to discuss shifts and recognition.

The next part, however, left employees speechless.

According to the sources, the therapist proceeded to screen Boatlift, a 12-minute video narrated by Tom Hanks about the evacuation of half a million people from the devastated piers of Lower Manhattan after 9/11 — the largest sea evacuation in history — as a parallel to life after Johnson. The video, which describes how regular Americans helped ferry victims to safety after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, supposedly meant to illustrate how J.C. Penney employees also need to be "captains" in the post-Johnson era and pursue the right courses of action without waiting for directions.

J.C. Penney is working to rebuild both its business and its image after Johnson, the ex-Apple retail chief, alienated customers with an attempted overhaul of the company. He was replaced with his predecessor, Mike Ullman, in April. Last month, J.C. Penney aired commercials apologizing to customers and thanking them for returning.

Some organizational therapists are brought in right after the initial trauma of a major management change to "salve survival guilt," said Mark Federman, academic vice president and dean of leadership and organization at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto, Canada. Other times they are brought in later if there is "considerable resistance" to an incoming culture or to help employees learn new routines, vocabulary, and behavior, Federman said.

"Most of my clients are very, shall we say, circumspect, about needing my services," Federman said in an e-mail, declining to name which corporations he has worked for. "Woody Allen made it fashionable for individuals to seek therapy, and Eric Schmidt of Google made it fashionable for CEOs to have executive coaches. However, the need for organizational therapists is still very much in the closet."

Boatlift, Narrated by Tom Hanks

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This video about 9/11 was used by an organizational therapist at an internal J.C. Penney meeting as a parallel to the company's management change in April.

Email Sapna Maheshwari