Panda Express workers forced to strip in ‘cult-like’ team-building seminar, lawsuit alleges
A former employee of a Panda Express in Santa Clarita alleges she was required to strip down to her underwear and hug a partially clad co-worker during a “cult-like ritual” at a 2019 training seminar sponsored by the company as a prerequisite to promotion.
The 23-year-old woman is suing Panda Restaurant Group, headquartered in Rosemead, and Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy in Pico Rivera for sexual battery, a hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
She is seeking unspecified damages in the lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Although the woman is named in court documents, the Southern California News Group does not identify suspected victims of sexual assault.
‘Horrific psychological abuse’
“We are looking forward to presenting this case to a jury so that a clear message can be sent to Panda Express — which owns and operates over 2,000 restaurants — that it must put to an end to its practice of requiring its employees to undergo horrific psychological abuse and harassment to be promoted,” Oscar Ramirez, the woman’s attorney, said in an email Monday.
Officials with Panda Restaurant Group said the company takes the woman’s allegations seriously and has conducted an investigation.
“Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy is a third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control,” says a statement from the company. “While we always encourage personal growth and development, Panda Restaurant Group has not and does not mandate that any associate participate in Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy nor is it a requirement to earn promotions.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect,” the company said. “We do not condone the kind of behavior (the plaintiff) has alleged took place at Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, and we would not intentionally allow it to occur within or on behalf of our organization.”
In an emailed statement, Alive Seminars said its training sessions are presented with respect and dignity.
The victim says she began working for Panda Express in 2016 and was told in July 2019 by then store manager Matthiu Simuda she needed to complete a self-improvement seminar conducted by Alive Seminars.
“Eager to improve her skills and advance within the company, plaintiff signed up and paid out of pocket to attend a four-day program,” the lawsuit says. “Panda Express pushed its employees in the Los Angeles region to complete Alive Seminars training. In many cases, it was a prerequisite to promotion.”
The seminar was held in a warehouse in East Los Angeles and attended by 20 to 50 Panda Express employees from throughout Southern California, Ramirez said. Those who attended the seminar were required to provide their employee identification numbers and received intake materials with the Panda logo.
“Alive Seminars served — in essence — as an extension of Panda Express’ own Human Resources department,” says the lawsuit.
Participants isolated, treated as ‘terrorists’
The complaint alleges the seminar was bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse.
At the start, attendees were told to sit down and not talk, and were left in isolation for a full hour before a man stormed in, yelling in Spanish and berating them for sitting there and doing nothing, when that is exactly what they had been instructed to do, says the complaint.
The man, an Alive Seminars employee, loudly proclaimed that the attendees were “nothing” and “don’t matter,” and berated them individually, the suit says. “The overall effect was that of a particularly nasty drill sergeant.”
Seminar participants were prohibited from using their cellphones, there was no clock in the room and the doors and windows were all covered with black cloth.
“The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects,” the complaint alleges. “The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room. Nevertheless, most attendees, including plaintiff, felt that they had no choice but to remain because they were sent to the seminar by Panda Express and told that their opportunity for promotion would depend on completion of the seminar.”
Participants required to strip
When the seminar continued on July 13, 2019, the woman allegedly was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of trust building.
“Plaintiff — stripped almost naked in front of strangers and co-workers — was extremely uncomfortable but pressed on because she knew it was her only chance at a promotion,” says the lawsuit. “Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.”
The exercise culminated when the victims and other participants had to stand up to yell about their inner struggles until everyone else in the group believed them.
“The last male participant had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and, as a result, broke down in tears,” the suit says. “Plaintiff was told to stand up and go to the middle of the room with the male participant, where they were forced to ‘hug it out,’ wearing nothing but their underwear. Plaintiff was humiliated but did as she was told.”
Seminar resembled cult ritual
As time went on, the seminar more and more resembled a cult ritual, the complaint alleges.
“Alive Seminars staff proceeded to dim the lights,” says the suit. “Plaintiff and the other attendees were instructed to stand up and close their eyes, pretending that a light from above would come down and take all the ‘negative energy’ out of them, then pretend that a hole opened up in the ground and swallowed the ‘negative energy.’ While this was happening, one of the Alive Seminars staff had a cell phone with the light on, recording plaintiff in her state of undress.”
Attendees, the lawsuit alleges, were confined in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
“If plaintiff wanted to use the restroom, someone from the Alive Seminars staff would stand outside the restroom door,” says the suit. “When another participant ran into the restroom to throw up, Alive Seminars staff ran after her. Another male participant was only given a small trash can to throw up in and was forced to do it in front of all the other attendees.”
During the July 13 session, the victim made an excuse of a family emergency and left the seminar.
The victim went to the seminar hopeful and optimistic about her future with Panda Express but left three days later “scarred and downtrodden.” Soon after, she quit her job because of emotional distress.
The suit alleges Panda Express “did not care about plaintiff’s experience at Alive Seminars or that she had been humiliated in front of her co-workers. Her chances of promotion were destroyed. plaintiff’s working conditions had become intolerable and Panda Express had no interest in addressing the situation.”