Sexual Harassment and the Fitness Industry
Are you creating a safe space for clients, class participants and staff to thrive?
One day, while stretching my client Jim, I was taken aback when I realized he wasn’t wearing underwear. His shorts were swim trunks with interior netting. I quickly looked away and continued to stretch him. This happened with Jim on several other occasions, but I never mentioned it because I wasn’t sure how to broach the matter. I also didn’t feel that he was doing this intentionally, nor did I believe he meant harm.
While some may consider Jim’s behavior a case of sexual harassment, at the time I didn’t see it as anything more than a lapse in judgment by my client—and knowing this man, I still believe that. This was also well before the #MeToo movement came into the spotlight. While I felt that this incident fell into a gray area, other situations are much more black-and-white.
“We once had a new member who was also new to town and had moved here for a prominent position within our arts community,” says Trina Gray, owner of Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan. “We were excited to work with him and knew that it could lead to a greater partnership between my club and his theater group. However, at his new-client consultation, he was extremely inappropriate with our female trainer. He talked openly about his private anatomy and suggested that he’d like to get to know her more intimately. She was frazzled and tried to redirect [the conversation] several times.”
Inappropriate sexual advances sometimes come in the form of a text message. “I was contacted by a male individual [and asked] to provide training for his aunt, who resided in his home,” recounts Justin Seedman, owner of JustinFit, an in-home personal training company in Broward County, Florida. “After 1 week of sessions with the aunt, I received a highly inappropriate sexual text message from the nephew.”
What would you do if you were in one of these situations? Do you still need to put a protocol in place for dealing with sexual harassment issues and allegations? Fitness professionals who have experience with this topic offer guidance, tips and support.
Report and Document
If the sexual harassment occurs in a face-to-face interaction, Seedman advises, get out of the situation quickly. “There is no need to mention anything about the harassment,” he says. “Simply say, ‘We have to stop for today.’ It’s preferable not to engage in back-and-forth conversation.”
The next steps are congruent with each other: Report and document. Gray’s employee was trained in exactly what to do. “She ended the session early and reported it to me right away,” says Gray. “We then wrote up an incident report.”
At this point, whether you’re an employee or a business owner, you are not obligated to continue any sort of relationship with the alleged harasser. “I immediately contacted him and terminated his membership,” says Gray. “That did not go over well with him; he claimed he was just joking around and we needed to get to know him. He was angry and accused me of having a ‘small-town mindset.’ I held firm. We don’t have any place for that in our business. We are respectful of each other at all times. My team felt taken care of and looked after because I took swift, immediate action.”
Since Seedman essentially had the harassment in writing, it was already documented. “I called my attorney, sent the nephew a termination text and refunded the money. Needless to say, the attorney drafted a termination clause so that, in the future, a refund would not be required.”
Yes, you read that right. Seedman refunded the money because, at the time, he did not have a refund clause that stated anything about cause. “Trainers need to address contract cancellations before sessions begin, and [the contract should] include a [a clear refund] clause,” urges Seedman. “Many trainers put up with sexual harassment to avoid giving refunds, because they need the money or have counted on the money for a particular purpose. The clause protects you and gives the client a heads-up about the refund policy.”
Because it can become very logistically complicated, Seedman does not specifically define cause in his contract, which reads: “Addressing cancellation of contract: In the event JustinFit LLC terminates this agreement without good cause or any other claim by client hereunder, client shall only be entitled to a refund of the pro rata share of any prepaid monthly or quarterly sessions and waives any other claim or damage. If JustinFit LLC terminates this agreement with cause, client shall not be entitled to a refund.”
If there is a question regarding cause, Seedman defers to his attorney. This is where documenting is so important. “You must document the incident in writing with as much detail as soon as possible, while it is fresh in your mind,” says Seedman, who lets his attorney take over from that point. “I call our attorney and ask the trainer not to communicate with the client. The attorney generally contacts the client, cancels the contract and [tells] the client not to contact the trainer or any member of the staff.”
While you do have a little bit of wiggle room regarding how much time you have to file a charge, it’s not much. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states, “In general, you need to file a charge within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place. The 180-calendar-day filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis (EEOC 2018a).”
While we’d all like to think we’re safe among our colleagues and supervisors, this isn’t always the case. For example, in Sheppard v. River Valley Fitness Mary Chris Sheppard and Robert Sheppard (plaintiffs) brought a sexual harassment suit against their employer and supervisors, River Valley Fitness One, L.P., et al. (defendants). According to documents filed in the U.S. District Court, District of New Hampshire (CV-00-111-M), Mary Chris Sheppard alleged that, over the course of 5–6 months, “she was subjected to a hostile work environment by her supervisor, and that her employer failed to take adequate measures to stop the harassment.”
In this case, the hostile work environment was characterized by her supervisor’s behavior, which included unwanted kisses on the cheek, sexually fueled comments and jokes, and “staring or leering at women,” Sheppard among them, while rubbing and/or touching his genitals. Sheppard also complained about retaliation after the harassment was reported.
“Ultimately, it’s the fitness business owner’s responsibility to ensure everyone who enters the facility is safe and free of any harassment of any type at any time,” says Josh Leve, founder and CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios.
In fact, according to Robin Bond, Esq., a workplace attorney and founder of the employment law firm Transition Strategies LLC, Philadelphia, “The law requires [emphasis added] employers to have policies in place that explain what sexual harassment is and what to do about it if you experience it at work from co-workers, bosses or clients. It is recommended that employers have training at least once a year for all employees, so that employees know their rights and responsibilities and act accordingly” (Vogel 2007).
Leve adds: “The policy should be written up and provided in an employee handbook that everyone must receive a copy of and sign. Additionally, it must be distributed to all new employees [and] posted [in a known location in] the facility. [The policy must make it very clear that] harassment of any kind is not tolerated. [Copies should be] redistributed on a regular basis and [the policy should be] communicated to employees often.”
Jennifer Urmston Lowe, national accounts manager for Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation, agrees. “Policies should state what is and is not acceptable behavior between employees, as well as between employees and clients/students,” she says. “This should include what is acceptable verbal and physical contact.”
While it’s less common to have a policy for members and clients, Lowe says the industry may indeed move in that direction. Leve feels the time is now for including such a policy as part of the client/member contract. “The contract should have a provision that makes the client aware, just like the employee or independent contractor, that sexual harassment is not tolerated,” he says, adding that it may also be a good idea to include a summary or example of what’s considered sexual harassment. He recommends that fitness professionals ask clients to review and sign the document.
While it is the owner’s responsibility to keep you safe in your workplace, what if, as in the Sheppard case, you’re being harassed by your supervisor or gym owner?
“In any of these cases, it must be dealt with quickly and promptly by going directly to the facility manager or owner,” advises Leve. “If . . . there is no higher level of authority, then it could escalate to a police matter. However, if there’s a corporate office, the director of human resources can be notified, as well.”
Create A Safe Place
According to a 2008 survey by Stop Street Harassment, 24% of women will pay to work out in a gym to avoid being harassed while exercising outdoors (SSH 2018). Yet, many lawsuits have been brought against gyms and fitness professionals, which raises the question: Is it really that much safer to work out in a gym or studio?
Many people already avoid the gym environment, as it’s uncomfortable for them. They feel as if they’re in a fishbowl of half-dressed people, all of whom know how to move their bodies with grace and ease. To reiterate what Leve said, and perhaps take it a step further, it is everyone’s responsibility to provide a safe, harassment-free zone for co-workers, managers, owners, clients and students. If we work together, we can make our own little corner of the world safe, welcoming and inviting to all kinds of people who are hoping to improve their lives through health and fitness.
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SSH (Stop Street Harassment). 2018. Why stopping street harassment matters. Accessed Apr. 18, 2018: stopstreetharassment.org/about/what-is-street-harassment/why-stopping-street-harassment-matters/.
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