Ex-Panda Express worker was forced to strip at team-building seminar, lawsuit alleges

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — A former employee of a Panda Express restaurant in California alleges she was required to strip down to her underwear and later hug a partially dressed co-worker during a training seminar nearly two years ago.

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The 23-year-old woman said she was told that a four-day self-improvement program with Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy was her only avenue to promotion at the Chinese fast-food chain, according to a lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court late on Feb. 25.

Panda Express and Alive Seminars are defendants in the lawsuit, the Los Angeles Times reported. The woman is seeking unspecified damages.

The employee, who worked at a franchise in Santa Clarita, said the seminar “more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on,” the lawsuit alleges. She added that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and failure to prevent harassment, sexual battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, adding she felt required to attend the training sessions, KCBS reported.

“This was called a ‘trust-building exercise, but it was opposite of building trust,” the woman’s attorney, Oscar Ramirez, told The Washington Post. “It required employees to subject themselves to dehumanizing activities in order to prove their loyalty to the company.”

A spokesperson for Panda Restaurant Group, the chain’s parent company, said in a statement to the Post that it takes the allegations “very seriously” and is investigating the matter.

“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.

In an emailed statement to The Orange County Register, a spokesperson for Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy said its training sessions are presented with respect and dignity.

According to the lawsuit, the former employee began working at Panda Express in 2016. Ramirez said she spent several hundred dollars to attend the workshop, the Times reported. At the time, she earned an hourly wage of $11.35, the Post reported.

According to the lawsuit, the victim said she 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 alleges. “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 told the Register.

According to the lawsuit, the seminar “quickly devolved into psychological abuse,” with instructors yelling and belittling attendees.

Cellphone use was prohibited, there was no clock in the room, and the doors and windows were covered with black cloth during the seminar, according to court documents.

On the third day of the seminar, the woman was made to strip down to her underwear in front of strangers and co-workers as part of what was billed as a trust-building exercise, according to the lawsuit.

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

The employee was later told to “hug it out” with another male participant, who allegedly cried when he could not succeed in the main aspect of the exercise: taking turns yelling about “their struggles until everyone else in the group ‘believed’ them,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit also 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.”

Panda Restaurant Group told the Post that it has no control or ownership interest in Alive Seminars. A spokesperson denied allegations that employees were required to participate in seminars or had to do so to receive promotions.

However, the lawsuit alleges that Panda Express employees at the seminar received materials featuring the fast-food chain’s logo, while attendees were also required to provide their company ID numbers to session leaders.

“Panda Express is on the hook because they were fully aware of what was going on,” Ramirez told the Post.