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Sexual Harassment in the Fitness Industry

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, ├ö├ç├┐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. 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.”

For more information on sexual harassment between employers and staff and tips on how to create a safe place, please see “Sexual Harassment and the Fitness Industry” in the online IDEA Library or in the July 2018 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal). If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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