Strange things are afoot at the Panda Express employee seminar

This isn’t a huge story in the scheme of things but it caught my attention because Panda Express is my son’s favorite restaurant. I’m sure we’ve been there several hundred times over the past eight or nine years, enough that we’ve been friendly with some of the people who work there. So it’s a surprise to read about a new lawsuit in which an employee claims they were subjected to cult-like manipulation at a training event for Panda Express employees.

In her complaint, Jennifer Spargifiore alleges she was told by a manager that she needed to complete the seminar to be considered for promotion, and even paid hundreds of dollars to attend it. She is suing Panda Express and Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, the provider of the seminar, for a number of claims, including sexual battery and discrimination, a failure to prevent harassment, wrongfully firing her, and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

According to her account, Spargifiore arrived for the multi-day workshop—held in an East L.A. warehouse—on July 11, 2019. On the first day, she claims, attendees were instructed to sit in silence without access to phones or clocks. After a period of isolation, a man entered and began yelling at participants. She claims that “The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects.” The next day’s activities included a role-playing exercise where participants were told to imagine only four people in the room surviving an accident, and to inform all the other participants why they had been selected to “die,” while, she claims “seminar staff continued to yell abuse to the effect that nobody will care if Plaintiff, or the other participants, live or die.”

It was on the third day, the complaint says, that participants were compelled to disrobe.

Wait, what? Is this Panda Express or the snake cult of Thulsa Doom? Here’s the description of the Saturday “exercise” directly from the court filing:

On Saturday, July 13, 2019, Plaintiff showed up to find a new “exercise” wherein she 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. Plaintiff felt extremely uncomfortable at the situation but compelled to continue because her prospects for advancement at Panda Express depended on completion of the seminar.

Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.

The exercise culminated when Plaintiff, along with other participants, had to take turns standing 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. 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.

The seminar more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on. 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 complaint claims that multiple people at this “training seminar” were vomiting because of the stress of what was going on. Wherever they went, participants were followed by members of the training team. All of this is a lot to put up with for an $11 an hour job.

Finally the plaintiff had had enough and made up a family emergency to skip the Saturday afternoon session. A few months later she resigned from her job. The lawsuit alleges that people at Panda Express who were recommending the training to employees knew what was involved but did nothing about it making them responsible. A spokesperson for Panda released a statement in the wake of the lawsuit saying they don’t condone what was described:

“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us. We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect,” the statement said.

LA Magazine reports that when they contacted Alive Seminars they were told the company did not work with Panda Express, but that’s clearly not true:

An unidentified individual who answered the phone at Alive Seminars asserted twice that the company does not work with Panda Express. That claim appears to be contradicted by a 2019 post on Alive’s own Facebook page, which features several photographs under the caption “Excellent Basic Training #PandaExpress associates creating value to open new possibilities.”

The lawsuit is seeking damages but doesn’t appear to specify a dollar amount. I’m not an attorney but it’s hard to see how the plaintiff won’t get something out of this if it’s true this seminar was recommended by her boss as a path toward a promotion.

But beyond that, I’m wondering what actual benefit this sort of training seminar represents to anyone. Do companies actually get anything out of having what amount to buffet line workers show up for these events or is this just a pointless hurdle to put off people asking for a promotion?

As I said above, our family likes the food but not enough to turn a blind eye to cult-like abuse of employees. Food service jobs are tough enough without having to put up with this kind of crap. Panda Express should apologize to any employee that was encouraged to attend these seminars and then reimburse its employees for the full cost.