Keeping Sexual Harassment at Bay in Your Fitness Center

By Aaron Eisberg

Sexual harassment is a significant problem in the United States. While we often think of this behavior primarily in workplaces, the reality is that it can and does happen everywhere -- including at fitness centers. 

Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with tips for reducing the risk of sexual harassment -- and resulting fitness center liability -- at your gym.

Communication is key when touching is involved. 

Understanding Sexual Harassment

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

“Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Sexual harassment can be broken down into two categories: 

  • “Quid Pro Quo” harassment, which comprises sexual overtures, requests for sexual favors, and other behaviors of a sexual nature -- both verbal and physical -- in which submission is a condition of employment and/or used as the basis for employment decisions.
  • “Hostile” harassment, a behavior which impedes an individual’s ability to perform his/her job and/or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment. 

Concludes IDEAFit, 

“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 materials.”  Gayle Baugh, associate professor of management at the University of West Florida and former chairperson of the Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division of the Academy of Management told IDEAFit, “If the behavior is sexual in nature and it is unwelcome, then you are experiencing sexual harassment.”

While this may seem clear cut, it is still often perceived as a murky territory -- particularly in environments in which attention to anatomy takes center stage. To that end, the EEOC provides the following points of clarification. 

  • Harassers and victims can be men or women of the same or opposite sex.
  • Harassers and victims can be connected in many capacities, including as supervisor/supervisee, coworkers, and non-employees.
  • Sexual harassment is not limited to the person being harassed and extends to anyone impacted by the conduct.
  • Economic injury or loss of employment are not prerequisites of unlawful sexual harassment.
  • A harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. 

Sexual Harassment and Fitness Centers

An El Paso, Texas gym franchise recently closed due to allegations that one of its trainers had been sexually harassing and assaulting its customers. In other cases, it’s the trainers themselves who have been victimized -- sometimes by their coworkers and supervisors, but also by clients, as well. 

Not only do these incidents harm the culture and reputation of your fitness facility, they can also come at a steep financial cost. Consider the case of a Sherman Oaks, California area 24 Hour Fitness which was ordered to pay $2.4 million to a former employee who was fired because she’d complained about being sexually harassed by her male-coworkers. 

Preventing Sexual Harassment in Your Health Club

While sexual harassment is very much a reality, fitness centers can take some simple steps to prevent and manage the issue. 

For starters, sexual harassment policies are a must. Robin Bond, Esq., SPHR, founder of employment law firm Transition Strategies, LLC, told IDEAFit

“The law requires employers to have policies in place that explain what sexual harassment is, and what to do about if you experience it at work from coworkers, bosses, or clients. It is recommended that employers have training at lease once a year for all employees, so that employers now their rights and responsibilities and act accordingly.”

You fitness staff deserves a healthy work environment. Sexual harassment prevention is an important part of it. 

This also means educating personal trainers about how to protect themselves while interacting with clients. At the heart of successful prevention? Communication. Advises Baugh, 

“Let clients know as specifically as possible what they can expect. 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.”  

Watching for nonverbal cues demonstrating discomfort is also essential as not all clients will be comfortable talking about their bodies. 

If sexual harassment does occur, despite these measures, fitness centers are ultimately responsible. If you are made aware of a situation, take expedient action consistent with your sexual harassment policies. 

One of the primary reasons people join gyms is to feel better about themselves. This overlaps with a primary reason why many people become personal trainers: to help others feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, when sexual harassment occurs at the gym, has an opposite effect. Not only that, but it can quickly turn a fitness center’s positive environment into a toxic one. With the right information, however, you can minimize your gym’s risk of sexual harassment issues in order to facilitate the safest, supportive environment possible for your employees and members.  

Looking for other ways to improve and enhance your fitness center?  Learn more about what Accurofit can do for you today.