In a civil complaint issued in Los Angeles County Superior Court, a former Panda Express employee claimed she was required to strip to her underwear in front of co-workers and strangers during a company retreat.
David K. Li of NBC News reported that Jennifer Spargifiore, 23, has filed the lawsuit against Panda Express as well as Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy, a “self-improvement consulting company” that leads company retreats that include “trust-building exercises.” In documents provided to the court, Spargifiore was reported to have worked for Panda Express from Aug. 10, 2016 to July 15, 2019, primarily in the northern L.A. County suburb of Santa Clarita.
According to Li, Spargifiore was told the events “were often ‘a prerequisite to a 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.’”
“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,’” Li reported.
Spargifiore is said to have “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.”
In another exercise, Spargifiore and a male co-worker who was also in his underwear were allegedly forced to stand in front of the group and hug each other, Li said.
Spargifiore eventually was so uncomfortable that she left the seminar early. Shortly after, the lawsuit alleges, she was terminated from her position. Her lawyers claim she was a “victim of sexual battery,” “a hostile work environment” and that she suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the event.
California-based Panda Restaurant Group has said it is conducting its own investigation into the events detailed in the lawsuit.
“We do not condone the kind of behavior described in the lawsuit, and it is deeply concerning to us,” the company said in a statement issued Wednesday, March 10. “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,’” said Li.
“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.