A former Panda Express employee said she was pressured to strip to her underwear in front of colleagues and strangers during a "trust-building" exercise, according to a civil complaint.
Jennifer Spargifiore, 23, filed the lawsuit last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Panda Express and Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, a self-improvement consulting outfit that led the exercise, are named in the suit as defendants.
According to the filing, Spargifiore worked for Panda Express from Aug. 10, 2016 to July 15, 2019, primarily in the northern L.A. County suburb of Santa Clarita.
She said the Alive seminars were often "a prerequisite to promotion," so much so that attendees were required to provide their work ID numbers so seminar fees "could be debited directly from their Panda Express employee accounts."
The dayslong sessions, however, were "bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse," the lawsuit said.
During one session on July 13, 2019, Spargifiore was pressured into an “'exercise' wherein she was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of 'trust-building,'” according to the complaint.
She "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 said. "Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing."
Later in this exercise, Spargifiore and a male participant, also down to his underwear, were allegedly forced to stand in front of the group to "hug it out."
"The seminar more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on," the lawsuit said.
After Spargifiore left the seminar early, she "was constructively terminated from her position with Panda Express in July 2019," according to the suit.
The suit, which said Spargifiore was a victim of sexual battery, a hostile work environment and infliction of emotional distress, did not name a dollar figure for damages.
Panda Restaurant Group, the Rosemead, California-based parent company of Panda Express, said it is conducting its own investigation of the allegations outlined in the lawsuit.
"We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” according to a company statement on Wednesday. “We are committed to providing a safe environment for all associates and stand behind our core values to treat each person with respect.”
The company also sought to distance itself from co-defendant Alive, calling it a "third-party organization in which Panda has no ownership interest and over which it exercises no control."
"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," the company said.
Alive could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday. In a statement to the Orange County Register, the organization said its training sessions are presented with respect and dignity.