HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development, Talent

Self-Improvement to Cult Initiation: How Not to Lead a Training Session

You would hope employers know the difference between a training session and a cult initiation ritual, but you may be surprised. A Panda Express took trust building exercises and loyalty tests too far during a four-day “self-improvement” session that started with beratement and ended with employees in their underwear.

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Panda Peer-Pressure

Training sessions are a common practice used to play out team-building exercises, improve employees’ performance, or expand employees’ skills. What isn’t common (or so I hope) is asking employees to strip down to their underwear.

The Washington Post featured an article last month relaying the experience of a female employee at a California-based Panda Express during a four-day seminar. She stated the experience better resembled a cult initiation ritual than a staff training session with each passing day. By day four, her male colleague broke down in tears, and they were forced to “hug it out” while both were still in nothing but their undergarments.

The training session was allegedly led by Alive Seminars as a self-improvement seminar, and the employee was told she would be promoted if she attended the session. On day one, after cellphones were confiscated, they were led to a room with blacked-out windows and told they would amount to nothing. On day two, they were told to imagine they were on a sinking ship where only four would survive. On day three, they were asked to imagine a light was “sucking out their negative energy.” And on day four, they were asked to strip down while expressing their vulnerabilities as a part of a “trust building exercise” and as a testament of their loyalty to the company.

When in Doubt, Don’t Hug it Out

It should come as no surprise to employers that forced physical contact is a big no (huge). And no, well-meaning intentions don’t matter. There’s a fine line between being sympathetic and harassment that should never be crossed.

If someone is crying, you hand them a tissue, create a safe space to talk, and maybe offer them the opportunity to take the rest of the day off. If you notice aggressive tension between two employees, sit them down and talk it out. There’s no reason you should be forcing hugs or any other physical contact between employees. Be vigilant of this with yourself and any other employee.

It should also be no surprise that loyalty to a company isn’t formed through “trust exercises” but rather through a good working environment and excellent management. Loyalty is fostered through company culture.

In this case, although Panda Express had received praise for encouraging self-improvement programs for its employees, a twisted turn took self-improvement into abuse. As history has shown us, from film studios to energy companies to financial institutions, a company with any type of abuse will definitely find itself on a sinking ship, no “loyal” members on board.

Rule of Reason

If you want to implement training sessions or seminars, it boils down to the rule of reason. You want your employees to bond and form professional relationships but temper your tactics with common sense. For example, harassment is a big issue you should tackle from day one, but you don’t need to harass an employee in front of their colleagues to show others harassment is wrong. You can show training clips from YouTube or simply speak on the issue and give clear-cut examples.

There are a hundred different ways you can go about seminars and trainings, none of which should involve nudity or coercion. Jacob M. Monty is an attorney with Monty & Ramirez LLP in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at