The 23-year old plaintiff says the strange, cult-like team-building exercise was understood as a prerequisite for promotion.
A California woman who worked at a Panda Express restaurant in Santa Clarita has sued her former employer, claiming she was forced to strip to her underwear and hug another undressed coworker as part of a bizarre, “cult-like” team-building activity.
According to The Los Angeles Daily News, the 23-year old plaintiff is suing Panda Restaurant Group and Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy.
In her complaint, Jennifer Spargifiore says she was forced to suffer sexual battery, sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress. Spargifiore further says she was forced to leave her position as a direct result of the strange team-building exercises.
Spargifiore recalls how the four-day Alive Seminars course immersed participants in an “atmosphere of fear.”
Attendees were purportedly subjected to cult-like pressures and isolation techniques, too.
“The attendees were prohibited from using their cell phones,” the lawsuit tates. “There was no clock in the room; the doors and windows were covered with black cloth.”
“The atmosphere resembled less a self-improvement seminar than a site for off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects,” the complaint adds. “The sensory isolation and intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse by seminar staff, creating an atmosphere of fear in the room.”
As part of one exercise, Spargifiore and other Panda Express employees were encouraged to strip to their undergarments—and then told to hug or otherwise make skin-to-skin contact with their colleagues.
The “game,” notes the Daily News, was intended to promote 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 lawsuit states. “Meanwhile, Alive Seminars staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress, smiling, and laughing.”
While undressed, employees were told to stand in front of their coworkers and “scream” about their “inner struggles” until they could “convince” everyone of their pain.
According to the lawsuit, the last male participant had difficulty convincing everyone else—Spargifiore was then ordered to stand up and “hug it out” with him, even though both were in their underwear.
All the while, says the suit, Alive Seminars staff recorded clips of the Panda Express employees.
Trial attorneys Matthew Blair and Oscar Ramirez suggested that Panda Express and Alive Seminars had sought to make employees prove their “loyalty” to the company by humiliating themselves.
“Today, Ms. Spargifiore has taken the difficult step of filing a lawsuit that is intended not to just help herself, but to change the workplace for all employees at Panda Express,” Blair and Ramirez said in a statement. “Employees wishing to be promoted within a company should be judged by their talents and skill, not by whether they will degrade themselves in front of fellow workers, as Panda Express required, to prove their loyalty to the company.”