fbpx Skip to content

Sexual Harassment in the Fitness Workplace

How can you prevent or, in unfortunate circumstances, handle this ugly issue?

Beverly and Barb are best friends in their 40s who’ve hired 22-year-old Trainer Tom for partner personal training. Dur­ing their first session, Tom demonstrates how to do a squat, offering cues to help the women understand proper technique. “You want to be feeling this in your butt muscles,” he says, in a matter-of-fact manner. “I want to be feeling your butt muscles,” blurts Beverly, gently patting Tom’s muscular behind. The two women snort and hoot.

To Beverly and Barb, the comment is nothing more than an innocent innuendo—the kind they make every day about Brad Pitt or the cute guy stocking shelves at the grocery store. They would never imagine their teasing could be interpreted as sexual harassment! It’s just their style of humor. However, to Tom, the incident was unwelcome and uncomfortable. He’s a capable professional, not a Chippendale’s dancer!

The above scenario illustrates an important point: whether or not Beverly and Barb intended for the action to be harassing is irrelevant. “What is relevant is whether or not the targeted individual(s) believes that the behavior is harassing. The harasser’s intent is not at issue, only his or her behavior,” says Gayle Baugh, associate professor of management at the University of West Florida, in Pensacola, and past chairperson of the Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division of the Academy of Management.

In an industry where touching, at­tention to anatomy and wearing body-conscious clothing are commonplace, sexual harassment is an important topic to address. Read on for an introductory look about dealing with sexual harassment in the fitness industry. (Important disclaimer: This general discussion should not be considered legal counsel.)

What Is Sexual Harassment?

To prevent sexual harassment, it helps to know what it is. As illustrated by Beverly, Barb and Tom’s situation, sexual harassment might appear to be different things to different people. While many folks aren’t aware of its exact definition, “most of us know what it is when we see (or experience) it!” says Baugh, who explains that sexual harassment includes:

“Quid Pro Quo” Harassment. This type involves sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature when submission to such behavior is a condition of the individual’s employment and is used as a basis for employment decisions.

“Hostile” Harassment. This behavior impedes the individual’s ability to perform his or her job or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment might refer to, but is not limited to, derogatory remarks or jokes, inappropriate comments or innuendo, unwelcome touching and displaying suggestive or offensive images. “If the behavior is sexual in nature and it is unwelcome, then you are experiencing sexual harassment,” says Baugh.

Between Coworkers or Between Employee and Boss

Preventing Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment can occur in the workplace between one or more coworkers or between an employee and his or her superior. As such, says Baugh, “it is essential to have a mechanism for employees to report incidents of perceived sexual harassment and a mechanism to investigate such charges in a confidential manner.” Every fitness business should have a sexual harassment policy in place. Yet many don’t, or if they do, employees may not be aware of it.

You might think a sexual harassment policy is good to have, but that introducing one can wait until bigger business priorities have been met. Wrong. “The law requires 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 coworkers, bosses or clients,” says Robin Bond, Esq., SPHR, a workplace attorney and founder of the employment-law firm Transition Strategies, LLC, in Philadelphia. And a properly documented policy is just the first step. “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,” adds Bond.

If Sexual Harassment Happens
Even with the proper policies in place, sexual harassment can occur. So what do you do if it happens to you with a coworker or boss? “Speak up!” says Bond. “Make it clear that the jokes or comments or touching make you uncomfortable and that you want it to stop. Keep it lighthearted, but direct. It’s okay to smile and be nice when you say this, but make sure your words are unequivocal,” she says.

Still, telling someone to stop is not always enough. “If the other party continues with the behavior, then a supervisor or manager should be called in,” says Baugh. “In the case of a manager harassing an employee, direct communication [as a first step] should still be encouraged,” says Baugh. “However, some employees may feel intimidated, and thus there should be someone in the company with whom a complaint can be filed. The company’s policy should identify the individual (or the position) who is responsible for receiving and investigating such complaints.”

If you’re shy or intimidated about face-to-face communication, Baugh suggests writing a letter—not an e-mail, which is more “public” and can be easily forwarded as workplace gossip. To help make your case, provide specific information about the date, time and place of each occurrence and the behavior in question. “Frequently, individuals who engage in harassing behaviors do not target one individual, so find out if anyone else shares your feeling of being harassed,” adds Baugh.

When none of these suggestions work, it’s time to seek help elsewhere. Says Bond, “If no one in the company is taking you seriously, contact an employment attorney or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at www.eeoc.gov. Act promptly, as you have only 180 days from the date of the offense to file a charge.”

Between Fitness Pros and Clients

Preventing Sexual Harassment
With all the touching and talking about body parts we do in the fitness field, it’s a wonder that sexual harassment isn’t discussed more often. To ensure your clients’ comfort and to protect yourself, establish clear communication at the onset of a client relationship. Explain how and why you might touch a client. “Let clients know as specifically as possible what they can expect,” says Baugh. For example, touching a shoulder or the low back helps you correct exercise form or educate the client about what muscles are working. “If the client appears uncomfortable with the requisite level of physical contact, it may be possible to find alternative ways of making the same types of corrections,” says Baugh.

Judge and act on each situation individually. “[Fitness professionals] must assess how comfortable the client is in talking about his or her body,” says Baugh. “People vary in this respect, and direct questions about comfort level do not always elicit accurate responses.” For this reason, assess nonverbal communication in addition to what a client tells you. For example, note when a client appears or acts uncomfortable. “Some indicators include pulling away from the [trainer]; failure to meet the [trainer’s] gaze; and fidgeting or signs of physical tension, particularly in the client’s face. Nervous laughter might also be a clue,” says Baugh.

To avoid unwelcome touching, Bond suggests that trainers demonstrate a technique or exercise on themselves first, then, if necessary, ask the client if it’s okay to touch him or her to further explain the training goal. This technique also works well for group exercise, where instructors are not able to debrief participants and assess individual comfort levels before class.

If Sexual Harassment Happens
The chances of you being accused of sexual harassment by a client are slim if you display proper conduct and remain sensitive to clients’ differing degrees of comfort about touching. However, you might become the target of sexual harassment from a client, whether it’s calculated or inadvertent. “A client may overstep the boundaries simply because he or she is not clear about where those boundaries are. You can help by making them clear,” says Baugh.

Let’s go back to Tom and his clients Beverly and Barb. Short of ending his training relationship with this feisty duo, what can Tom do to get Beverly and Barb’s unwelcome jokes and touching to stop? He can start by telling his clients in a lighthearted but direct manner to refrain from such behavior. “Indicate what the client is doing that you don’t like, and emphasize the professional nature of your relationship,” says Baugh. If that doesn’t work, Tom could turn to his employer for assistance. “Many people are unaware that the employer is responsible for ensuring that employees are not harassed by clients. If the client’s undesirable behavior does not stop, then you must ask your manager or supervisor to step in. Once you have done that, you have made your employer aware of the situation, and the employer is responsible for ensuring that it stops,” says Baugh.

If you are a self-employed trainer, you can cite your sexual harassment policy, explaining the unethical nature of sexual conduct between a trainer and current client. “This gives the trainer the chance to deflect the personal nature of the interaction and say that she or he needs to keep business and personal matters separate [for the sake of] her or his job,” says Bond. If that doesn’t end the unwanted behavior, consider discontinuing the relationship with that client.
Regardless of the scenario, as a trainer, instructor or business owner, it’s your responsibility to learn about sexual harassment to protect you, your employees and/or your clients.

SIDEBAR: Resources

For more information on sexual harassment, visit www.sexualharass.com. For specific details about sexual harassment in your area, please check your state, province or country’s actual harassment laws.

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional, presenter and writer in Vancouver, British Columbia. She owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She’s the author of 51 Need-to-Know Writing & Marketing Tips for Fitness Pros, a free e-book available through www.activevoice.ca.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Related Articles