A former employee of a Panda Express in the Santa Clarita Valley is suing the company after, she claims, she was pressured to attend an off-site seminar where she was subjected to “cult-like rituals.” She says these included being coerced to strip down to her underwear and hug an undressed male colleague, and allow another person to film her on a cell phone while nearly naked.
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, and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
According to her account, Spargifiore arrived for the multi-day workshop 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.
“[S]he 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,” the filing says. “Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.”
Seminar staff allegedly then turned off the lights and told participants to close their eyes. During what she describes as an experience that “resembled a cult initiation ritual,” Spargifiore says she noticed an Alive Seminars worker filming her on a cell phone using the phone’s internal light.
“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 complaint reads. “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.”
Following what the filing describes as “unwanted and offensive contact with a male Panda Express employee that included contact with her breasts,” Spargifiore left the seminar and did not return. Once back at her job she says she told management, but that “Panda Express had no interest in addressing the situation. As a result, Plaintiff was constructively terminated from her position.”
Panda Express was not able to comment on Spargifiore’s complaint in specific detail as it is an active legal matter, but a representative did share that “Panda Restaurant Group takes these allegations very seriously and has conducted an investigation,” adding, “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.”
The fast food chain sought to distance itself from Alive Seminars.
“Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy is a third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control,” the spokesperson stated. “While we always encourage personal growth, 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.”
Panda Express insists that participating in the Alive event or any other workshop would have been presented as voluntary, and disputes Spargifiore’s assertion that a promotion depended on participation.
“Panda Restaurant Group values personal learning to help associates grow in areas that are important to them. Some associates, depending on their role, are eligible to use a Learning Benefit, which can be used in a wide variety of ways, whether those resources go towards books or offsetting costs for attending a third-party personal growth course of their choosing. Learning Benefits are not deducted from wages, and our eligible associates have the option to use or not use them. Panda has not orchestrated any company-sponsored sessions with Alive Seminar and Coaching Academy.”
When pressed, a Panda Express spokesperson did state disapproval of the methods described in the complaint, if they took place.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior Ms. Spargifiore has alleged took place at Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy,” the representative says. “We would not intentionally allow it to occur within or on behalf of our organization.”
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.”
According to the legal filing, the connections between Panda Express and Alive Seminars go beyond simply welcoming Panda employees into public classes.
“At the seminar, Panda Express employees were required to provide their employee ID numbers so that the seminar fee could be debited directly from their Panda Express employee accounts, if they were one of the employees for whom Panda Express was paying. 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,” lawyers claim.
In 2015, Los Angeles published a profile Andrew Cherng, the co-founder and co-CEO of Panda Express, along with his wife Peggy. In it, writer Ed Leibowitz describes Cherng’s exacting personal standards—for instance, discussing a perceived weight gain, Cherng berates himself for lacking “integrity”—and affinity for gurus and self-help seminars.
“Seemingly every corner of Panda headquarters has been designed to promote employee growth,” Leibowitz wrote. “On nearly every desk or bookshelf are copies of such best-selling guides to betterment as Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Tony Robbins’s Re-Awaken the Giant Within. The company actively encourages its employees to join Toastmasters International and attend personal-improvement seminars as retro as Dale Carnegie Training and as New Agey as the Landmark Forum (which seems a likely source for Cherng’s integrity lingo). On Saturday mornings the grand auditorium fills with hundreds of employees, ranging from servers to members of the Panda Group’s PR and legal teams as well as many of their children. They gather together for inspiring speeches, team-building activities, and plenty of group hugs.”
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