A former employee of Panda Express has filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming that it urged its employees to complete a training seminar in which she was forced to strip down to her underwear in front of other participants and subsequently hug a male participant who was also in his underwear, also in front of other participants. Panda Express has since issued a statement denying ownership or control of the seminar and insisting that it did not mandate attendance.
The lawsuit claims that some Panda Express employees were led to believe participating in the seminar would enhance their chances at promotion, the Pasadena Star-News reported, noting that the 23-year-old woman is not only suing Panda Restaurant Group but also Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy for sexual battery, a hostile work environment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The plaintiff stated she was first employed by Panda Express in 2016 and in July 2019 a store manager informed her she needed to join a self-improvement seminar conducted by Alive Seminars. The lawsuit alleges, “Eager to improve her skills and advance within the company, plaintiff signed up and paid out of pocket to attend a four-day program. 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 plaintiff’s attorney, Oscar Ramirez, stated that between 20 and 50 employees attended the seminar in a warehouse, adding that they had to offer their employee identification numbers, after which they received materials with the Panda logo. The lawsuit alleges, “Alive Seminars served — in essence — as an extension of Panda Express’ own Human Resources department.”
The lawsuit alleges that participants were initially informed they should be seated and remain silent while they were isolated for an hour, after which a man entered and yelled at them for sitting and doing nothing, calling them “nothing” and asserting they “don’t matter” while abusing them verbally one-by-one. “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 Star-News reported.
The lawsuit continues: “The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects. 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.”
“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,” The Star News noted, quoting the lawsuit further: “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. Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.”
That was allegedly followed by instructions to attendees to rise and scream about their inner issues until the other attendees believed them.
“The last male participant had some difficulty ‘convincing’ the others and, as a result, broke down in tears,” the lawsuit alleges. “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.”
Later, the lawsuit claims, “Alive Seminars staff proceeded to dim the lights. 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.”
The plaintiff finally said she had a family emergency and left.
Ramirez stated, “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.”
In response to the lawsuit, Panda Express issued a statement denying direct connection to the seminar program or mandating attendance:
Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy is a third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control. 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. 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 Star-News added.