[Readings] Cult of Hospitality,

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[Readings]

Cult of Hospitality

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From a lawsuit filed in February in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Panda Express and Alive Seminars, a company hired by the fast-food chain to run a four-day self-improvement seminar for its employees. The suit was brought by a former cashier.

Panda Express pushed its employees in the Los Angeles region to complete an Alive Seminars training. The 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 loudly proclaimed that the attendees were “nothing” and “don’t matter,” approaching some people to berate them individually, spittle flying.

It became apparent almost immediately that the goal of the seminar staff was to isolate and intimidate the attendees. They 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 a site for an off-the-books interrogation of terrorist suspects. The intimidation was reinforced by constant yelling and verbal abuse. Nevertheless, most attendees felt that they had no choice but to remain because they had been sent by Panda Express and told that opportunities for promotion would depend on completion of the seminar.

The plaintiff was forced to participate in an “exercise” in which the seminar attendees were to pretend that they were on a sinking ship and that only four of them would get to live. Each participant was then informed by their peers whether they would live or die. Meanwhile, seminar staff continued to yell abuse to the effect that nobody would care if the participants lived or died because they did not stand out sufficiently.

The plaintiff was forced to strip down to her underwear under the guise of “trust-building.” Seminar staff were openly ogling the women in their state of undress—smiling and laughing. The exercise culminated in an event where the 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. The 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. Seminar staff proceeded to dim the lights. The attendees were instructed to stand up and close their eyes, pretending that a light from above would come down and take all the “negative energy” out of them, and then pretend that a hole opened up in the ground and swallowed the “negative energy.” While this was happening, one of the staff members had a cell phone with the light on, recording the plaintiff in her state of undress.

When a participant ran to the restroom to throw up, staff members ran after her. Another male participant was given a small trash can to throw up in and was forced to do it in front of the other attendees.

The plaintiff went into the seminar hopeful and optimistic about her future at Panda Express. She left three days later scarred and downtrodden. She was constructively terminated from her position at Panda Express.