The popular fast food chain Panda Express is known for being a reliable go-to in malls around the country, as well as a story of immigrant success whose founders have built a sprawling and very lucrative business empire that touts its fair treatment of workers. But according to a recently filed lawsuit, the workers who are serving you your orange chicken are allegedly told that if they want to be promoted, they have to participate in so-called “self-help” seminars that one employee says quickly turn abusive.
In the lawsuit, a former Panda Express cashier claims that during a four-day seminar in 2019, run by a group named Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, that she and other Panda Express workers participated in, she was forced to strip down to her underwear and then ordered to “hug it out” with another employee, a man who had also been forced to undress.
According to the worker, Panda Express management pushed her to attend the seminar. She alleges that she was told by her supervisor that “in order to be considered for promotion, she needed to complete a ‘self-improvement’ seminar run by Alive Seminars,” so she paid several hundred dollars of her own money for the four-day training program. The complaint alleges that “Alive Seminars has a close association with Panda Express,” and the worker notes that at the seminar she participated in, “every person in attendance was a Panda Express employee.” As she wrote in her lawsuit, “The seminar more and more resembled a cult initiation ritual as time went on.”
Panda Express isn’t the only large company that encourages workers to take part in trainings marketed as personal growth that participants often say are manipulative and humiliating—Lululemon, to name just one prominent example, has been criticized for pushing its workers to attend Landmark Forum trainings, the prominent self-help seminar that has attracted a fair amount of criticism for its allegedly abusive methods. One former Lululemon worker recalled, “We had to reevaluate our goals and how we align with the company” if they chose not to attend Landmark Forum trainings. She added, “If you decided not to go, they would find a way to phase you out.”
Here’s how the complaint by the former Panda Express worker describes the Alive Seminars training she attended, which certainly reads as abusive:
From the beginning, the Panda-sponsored Alive seminar...was bizarre and quickly devolved into psychological abuse. At the start, the attendees were told to sit down and not talk, and were left in eerie isolation for a full hour before a man stormed in, yelling in Spanish and berating the attendees for sitting there and doing nothing when that is exactly what they had been instructed to do. The man, an Alive Seminars employee, loudly proclaimed that the attendees are “nothing” and “don’t matter,” rounding on some people to berate them individually, spittle flying. The overall effect was that of a particularly nasty drill sergeant yelling into [her] face.
It became apparent almost immediately that the goal of the seminar staff was to isolate and intimidate [her] and the other attendees. The attendees were prohibited from using their cell phones; there was no clock in the room; the doors and windows were all covered with black cloth. The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects. The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room.
On Friday, July 12, 2019 Plaintiff was forced to participate in an “exercise” where the seminar attendees were to pretend that they are on a sinking ship and that only four of them get to live. Each participant in turn was then informed by their peers whether they would live or die. Meanwhile, seminar staff continued to yell abuse to the effect that nobody will care if Plaintiff, or the other participants, live or die because they do not stand out sufficiently.
The next day, the worker alleges she and other participants were forced to undress “under the guise of ‘trust-building,’” all while Alive Seminars staff were laughing and filming them:
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.
For those who are familiar with the self-help ethos pushed by the billionaire founders of Panda Express onto their employees, the allegations in the lawsuit aren’t quite as shocking. As one of the founders Andrew Cherng put it to Los Angeles Magazine in 2015, “Our job is to develop people.” Cherng added, “When you have a good set of people, and they’re in a good place inside and out—in their livelihood and in who they are—then chances are they will take care of the customer better.”
Cherng wasn’t only referring to the company’s relatively decent wages and benefits, but also to his views on self-development, which includes pushing employees to take part in trainings including those of the Landmark Forum. More, via Los Angeles Magazine, emphasis my own:
Seemingly every corner of Panda headquarters has been designed to promote employee growth. Along the corridors are motivational posters that urge workers to never stop striving for more—both for themselves and the company. 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.
In a statement, Panda Express’s parent company described the allegations in the lawsuit as “deeply concerning. “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 a separate statement, the company denied that it required employees to attend Alive Seminars’s trainings in order to be promoted. “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 company wrote. “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.”
When Los Angeles Magazine reached out to Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy—which is, oddly, a registered non-profit run by a woman named Antonia Gomez—they spoked with “an unidentified individual” who “asserted twice that the company does not work with Panda Express.” That claim, as Los Angeles Magazine noted, is contradicted by a since-deleted post on Alive Seminars’s Facebook page, which showed photos tagged “Panda Express Associates” at a three-day training in Oregon. There’s a lot about Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy that smells a bit off—namely its status as a non-profit. “So how does a questionable company such as Alive secure a lucrative seminar contract with a privately held company with $2.2 billion in revenue who can hire any employee coaching company in the country?” Los Cerritos News asked. “The lawsuit should shine a light on that question, if it goes to trial.”
The current lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. According to the worker’s attorney, Oscar Ramirez, other Panda Express employees have joined together to file a class-action lawsuit related to the Alive Seminars training. “Panda Express is on the hook because they were fully aware of what was going on,” Ramirez told the Washington Post. He added, “It required employees to subject themselves to dehumanizing activities in order to prove their loyalty to the company.”