A former Panda Express employee is suing the chain for sexual harassment and emotional distress after attending a self-improvement seminar that engaged in “cult-like rituals,” like forcing participants to strip naked.
The 23-year-old woman attended the Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy in July 2019, after being told by her superior that she needed to do so to receive a promotion, the lawsuit says. The court documents describe the Alive seminar as “bizarre” and say the event “quickly devolved into psychological abuse.”
Attendees were allegedly prohibited from using their cell phones, and placed in a room where the doors and windows were covered with black cloth. The lawsuit describes the atmosphere as an “off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects.”
After an hour of waiting in silence, the seminar allegedly began with a man storming in yelling in Spanish and berating participants. The employee told attendees that they were “nothing” and “don’t matter,” the lawsuit says.
During an exercise labeled as trust-building, the woman was forced to strip down to her underwear in front of other participants, the lawsuit says. The demonstration ended with attendees yelling about their inner struggles until everyone believed them. Documents say one man broke down in tears after not being able to convince others. The woman was later told to “hug it out” with the male participant, wearing nothing but underwear.
In another instance, attendees allegedly completed an exercise in which they had to pretend to be on a sinking ship and inform others of whether they got to live or die. Amid this exercise, staff screamed abusive language, such as “nobody will care if Plaintiff, or the other participants, live or die because they do not stand out sufficiently.”
The lawsuit says that as the seminar continued, it began to resemble a “cult initiation ritual.” During one session, Alive seminar staff allegedly dimmed the lights and participants were told to stand up, close their eyes, and pretend a light was coming down to suck out all the negative energy and that a hole in the ground swallowed the negative energy.
The complaint claims Panda Express “adopted, ratified, and endorsed the offending conduct and authorized it as if it had been its own policy.”
The restaurant said in a statement that it takes the woman’s accusations seriously and that it will investigate the matter. Panda Express also said that Alive Seminars is a third-party organization and that the brand has no ownership interest and exercises no control.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the company said in a statement to QSR. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.
“We are continuing to look deeper into what did occur, and we are committed to doing what is right,” the statement continued. “As an active legal matter, we are unable to comment further.”
Panda Express said that while it encourages personal growth and development, the restaurant does not mandate participating in the seminars nor is it a requirement to earn promotions. However, the lawsuit claims the restaurant paid some employees to attend and that participants were required to provide employee ID numbers so the seminar fee could be directly debited from their employee accounts. Additionally, the lawsuit says all employees received seminar materials featuring the Panda Express Logo.
“Alive Seminars served—in essence—as an extension of Panda Express’ own Human Resources department,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint alleges that participants were put in a constant state of “fear and intimidation.” If participants wanted to use the bathroom, seminar employees would follow and stand outside the door. According to the court documents, one male participant was given a small trash can to throw up and was forced to do it in front of other attendees.
The woman claims she was forced to leave Panda Express after refusing to attend more of the seminars.
“Plaintiff went into the July Seminar hopeful and optimistic about her future at Panda Express. She left it three days later scarred and downtrodden,” the lawsuit says. “Panda Express told her to attend the Alive Seminar and made it clear that any promotion depended on it. Panda Express, however, 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,” the document says. “She had been forced to strip in-front of her co-workers. Plaintiff’s working conditions had become intolerable and Panda Express had no interest in addressing the situation. As a result, Plaintiff was constructively terminated from her position with Panda Express in July 2019.”