Update 8/3/20. Almost every day we hear allegations of sexual harassment. Truth be told, this is nothing new. Unfortunately, harassment like this and other forms has been going on for many years. While we often hear only about incidents involving celebrities, Hollywood directors, and politicians, I wanted to discuss sexual harassment in fitness centers. The fitness industry doesn't talk much about this except maybe a blurb here or there if you know where to look (I do). We never hear it mentioned on TV news either. So when someone working in a gym is sexually harassed – they might not know what to do. If you work at a fitness center and are being harassed -sexually or otherwise – or if you are a gym member and experiencing this, let me offer some advice to help.
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Before We Start…
Many fitness centers hire younger people who don't understand their rights and don't know what to do when they are sexually harassed. They feel un-empowered. This lack of personal power can fuel the continuation of assaults.
Also, most gyms don't have an on-site human resources department where people can turn for help when sexual assault occurs. To compound this, some might not know what being “sexually harassed” means – so let's define it now.
According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is defined as:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when 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 occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
- The victim, as well as the harasser, could be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite gender.
- The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
- The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.”
I'm highlighting the last point because this is not something you have to put up with. Do not suffer in silence. You have the power to do something about sexual harassment.
The law is on your side.
I'm not an attorney, but after hearing reports from those who have experienced harassment in the gym, I wanted to offer some advice.
I want to divide this discussion into the following sections :
- Sexual harassment by coworkers
- Sexual harassment by personal trainers
- Gym members sexually harassing gym staff
I'll also touch on a few other side points along the way too.
Sexual Harassment By Coworkers
What to do if you are being sexually harassed at work? If you work at a fitness center, you need to understand your employer must provide you with a safe and healthy working environment. This includes being safe, from harassment by coworkers. The nature of the harassment can be sexual, mental, bullying, or other forms.
It doesn't matter what your job is, whether it be fitness/ wellness, janitorial, front desk, daycare, lifeguard, etc., you have the right not to deal with the stress of sexual harassment.
The types of issues I'm talking about here can include:
- Unequal pay /opportunities based on gender
- Sexual harassment
So what can you do?
The first thing is to fill out an incident report describing what is going on. Incident reports can often be found at the front desk. If you can't find the form, write everything that happened to you. Describe everything, including the names of people involved, locations, times, and dates the harassment occurred. List any witnesses to the events too. If you do an online search for phrases like:
- Workplace violence incident report
- Sexual harassment incident report
This can provide you with examples of the types of information to include.
After you have completed the incident report, speak to the general manager (GM) or owner of the club about what is happening to you. Do this in private. Explain to them the nature of the harassment and identify the coworker who is involved. Present him/her with a copy of your incident report and ask for a quick resolution to this problem. Keep a copy of the incident report for your records.
If you are being sexually harassed by either the general manager or a direct supervisor, determine who they report to and go to that person. If the owner of a fitness center is harassing you, write everything down, call the police and find an attorney. Most importantly, quit. Do not continue to stay in the abusive situation.
The owner/ GM of the club must take swift action to stop the abuse. Continue to document any incidents of harassment occurring after you speak to the owner/GM.
If You Don't Get A Resolution Quickly…
If the owner or GM won't take swift action or what they tell you is not satisfactory, it will be necessary to take this to the next level. If you work at a national chain of fitness centers (LA Fitness, Retro Fitness, Golds Gym, etc.), call their corporate phone numbers.
Here are the corporate numbers for some of the largest fitness centers:
- 24 Hour Fitness 800-432-6348
- Anytime Fitness 651-438-5000
- LifeTime Fitness 480-892-5020
- Equinox Fitness 212-774-6363
- Golds Gym: 214-574-4653
- LA Fitness: 909-392-1063
- Retro Fitness: 800-738-7604
- Snap Fitness: 612-729-9562
- Soul Cycle: 212-787-1300
I've also linked to the Better Business Bureau pages for each of the gyms too. Some gyms don't list contact numbers and/or are made up of many franchises, which is why some fitness centers are not listed. The BBB can help you find the information you need.
Don't Wait Too Long
There may be a time limit on how long you have until you can make a harassment lawsuit. So the sooner, the better. If the manager of the gym is not working with you, know it's OK to quit. I understand this may not be something you want to do -for financial reasons- but think of it like this: is the money really worth it? Is it worth the stress you are dealing with?
Sexual Harassment By Fitness Trainers
So what do you do if you are being harassed by a gym employee such as:
The nature of harassment does not have to be physical. It can be verbal too. No matter the situation, you need to feel safe. Seek out the owner or general manager of the facility and explain what is happening.
Ask the manager of the fitness center to resolve the problem and also ask to file an incident report. The staff member who is harassing you needs to be made clear their actions cannot continue and if they do, their employment will be terminated.
If the general manager doesn't act quickly on this, take it up with a higher authority. Contact the corporate office or speak to the “regional district manager” of the club.
If the harassment is making you fearful for your safety, contact the police.
If the situation has escalated to the point where you are fearful, quit and work elsewhere.
Can A Fitness Certification Be Revoked?
Personal trainers need to know his/her fitness certification can be canceled/revoked if it can be proven she/he was involved in sexual harassment or other illegal behavior.
Here are excerpts I found for a variety of fitness-certifying organizations:
ACE Fitness Code Of Ethics
- The ACE Fitness Ethics Code states “ACE may revoke or otherwise take action with regard to the application or certification of an individual in the case of…” variety of instances including sexual harassment. See the ACE Exam review
ACSM Code of Ethics
- ACSM Code of Ethics states “The College, and its members should safeguard the public and itself against members who are deficient in ethical conduct.” See the ACSM Exam review.
AFAA Code of Conduct
- The AFAA Code of Conduct (link goes to a PDF document) states members shall “Comply with all local, state, federal, and providence laws and employer rules regarding harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment. Note AFAA is now owned by NASM.
AFPA Code of Ethics
- The Code of Ethics policies for the American Fitness Professionals & Associates (link goes to a PDF document) (AFPA) states “I will not engage in behavior that represents any conflict of interest between myself, AFPA, the students, and the client .”
IFPA Disciplinary Policies and Procedures
- The International Fitness Professional Association (IFPA) disciplinary policies and procedures state “The IFPA reserves the right to reprimand, suspend or revoke a member’s certification or take action for the following reasons” (several reasons are given).
NCCPT Code of Ethics
- The National Council for Certified Personal Trainers (NCCPT) Code of Ethics states “ Sexually oriented banter and inappropriate physical contact should be avoided.” See the NCCPT Exam Review
NSCA Ethics Code
- The NSCA Ethics Code, states NSCA members “should not condone or engage in unethical behavior and report allegations of unethical behavior.” Violations of the ethics code can result in a variety of actions including revocation of certification and membership. See the NSCA Exam Review
NASM Code of Professional Conduct
- The NASM Code of Professional Conduct (link goes to a PDF document) document states ” NASM may revoke or otherwise take action with regard to the certification of an individual who is or has been convicted of, plead guilty to, or plead nolo contendere (no contest) to a felony or misdemeanor or has been found through legal process to have been negligent or responsible for injury or harm in performing in his/her professional capacity or have misrepresented his/her qualifications to provide services, including opinions or advice, to the public.” As an aside, I have met one person whose NASM cert was revoked after pleading guilty to marijuana possession. See the NASM Exam Review
NCSF Code of Ethics
- The National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF) code of ethics states: “Sexual misconduct on the part of the trainer is an abuse of professional power and a violation of client trust. Sexual contact or a romantic relationship between a trainer and a current client is always unethical.”
WITS Code of Ethics
- The World Instructor Training Schools (WITS) Code of Ethics states “I shall uphold the standards of professionalism and commit to performing my duties competently, safely and ethically.” See the WITS Exam Review
Clients Sexually Harassing Personal Trainers
So, what if it's the personal trainer being sexually harassed by the client?
While statistics on this cannot be located, I've become aware of instances where clients have made unwanted advances toward their personal trainers, indoor cycling instructors, etc.
If your client is sexually harassing you, save yourself the headache and pass the client on to another trainer. I understand firing a client can be a financial burden, but trust me, the money is not worth it. You will have a better life when you don't have to deal with the person or their unwanted advances.
How To Fire A Personal Training Client
There are two ways you can fire a client:
- Directly tell the client it's not working out and you feel uncomfortable by their advances/comments.
- Explain to the client you are cutting back your workload.
The advantage of option #1 is they get feedback on their inappropriate behavior. Hopefully, this reduces the odds of them making others feel uncomfortable in the future. Option #2 is more subtle and has the advantage of diffusing a situation that may get worse.
Regardless of which option you take, the process of stopping the harassment is similar to above and consists of:
- filing out an incident report (keep a copy for your records)
- speaking to the owner/general manager about the incident
- getting updates on the course of action taken
- continuing to document incidents as they occur
If needed, seek the assistance of the police and court system.
Gym Members Harassing Other Members
According to at least one survey, 24% of women report they prefer exercising indoors to prevent being harassed. While this is unacceptable, it's an opportunity for fitness centers to attract new members.
But, what if the harassment comes from other members of the gym?
In what was probably the most talked-about incident, former Playboy Playmate Dani Mathers, was banned from all LA Fitness locations after posting a Snapchat video of naked women in an LA Fitness locker room. Remember, harassment does not have to be physical or verbal.
Combatting Gym Member Harassment
So, how can fitness centers combat sexual harassment by members? One way is to present each new member with a policies and procedures booklet outlining appropriate and not- appropriate behavior within the fitness center.
These policies can contain anything the management feels is needed such as basic gym etiquette to how to deal with members behaving badly. Having a no cell phone camera in the locker room policy should be a no-brainer.
Examples of Fitness Center Harassment
Arguably, the most infamous sexual harassment case involves Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Hot Yoga fame, who was fined $6.7 million. But there are other incidents too such as:
- Man Files Sexual Harassment Lawsuit against 24 Hour Fitness
- Yoga Student Alleges Sexual Assault, Harassment in Lawsuit Against New York City Studio
- YMCA male alleges sexual assault by a fellow member
- Planet Fitness Operators Sued for Sexual Harassment, Discrimination
- Ex NBA player accused of assault of Life Time Fitness employee
- Equinox Faces Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
- Man Sues Life Time Fitness, Accuses Ex-Trainer of Sexual Abuse
- YMCA employees allege sex discrimination
- Personal Trainer Wanted in Sexual Assault Case Arrested in Thailand
- LA Fitness Personal Trainer Faces Sexual Battery, Kidnapping Charges
I am unable to find statistics on sexual harassment in fitness centers. I present these as proof that it does occur. I also want those struggling with harassment now to know they are not alone – and help is available.
What If You Are Accused But Are Innocent?
What if you are accused of harassing someone but you didn't do anything inappropriate? While statistics are not available, I've been told privately it has happened. For example, maybe as a personal trainer, you made a mistake spotting a client during an exercise and it was mistaken for something it was not.
If you made a mistake with a comment or action I think it's best to apologize as soon as possible. Try to get out in front of this off before it festers and escalates. If you made a mistake spotting an exercise, explain what you were trying to do and apologize for your mistake. If the incident only happened once and you don't have a reputation for that kind of behavior, I'd think most rational people will forgive the transgression.
If you were wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, please leave a comment below on what happened and how you handled it.
Avoiding Sexual Harassment In Fitness Centers
The vast majority of personal trainers are very honorable and would never do any of the things discussed here. So, how can those upstanding trainers reduce the risk of sexual harassment allegations? Besides having personal trainer insurance which covers allegations of sexual misconduct, here are a few ways we can strive to be more professional and reduce risk:
1. Don't date your clients
When I discuss this in classes I teach, I often hear a few snickers from people. This is not a funny thing. Dating your personal training client is just asking for trouble – and it's unethical. Consider the reputation you are getting in the gym – because people do talk. Do you want to be known as “that guy” or “that girl?”
If you are known to others as that kind of a person, you will have difficulty digging yourself out from under the weight of sexual harassment allegations. You will be judged guilty until proven innocent.
2. Keep touching to a minimum
From time to time trainers may need to touch their clients to correct their form. I get this but touching does not need to be a full-contact sport. At the very first meeting with clients, tell them you may need to adjust their form occasionally but you will first always ask their permission first.
All fitness should have a written policy that deals with sexual harassment and discrimination. An attorney can draw this up for you. Such a policy should also be implemented. All staff should read and sign the document. Fitness centers (the employers) should retain these forms for their records.
Employees should be educated on appropriate vs. non-appropriate contact with members, guests, and clients. This includes spotting techniques too.
3. Have witnesses
If you work at a fitness center where body fat measurements are taken using skinfold calipers, you should have a witness in the room (preferably the same gender as your client) and if possible, your actions should be able to be seen by the public.
I think the fear of sexual harassment is one of the main reasons most fitness centers do not use body fat calipers anymore, opting instead for bioelectric impedance devices.
4. Background checks
While fitness centers usually conduct background checks on those who work directly with kids, background checks of all employees might be more encompassing.
5. Institute anti-harassment policies
All fitness centers should have a formal policy as well as in-service education on harassment which all employees must attend before officially being hired. Since many who work in fitness centers are younger and may not have given much thought to this yet, instituting such a policy will help them as they go forward in life too. As outlined in this article such policies should include the following information:
- Definition of sexual harassment
- A statement declaring harassment of any kind is not tolerated
- Procedures /steps for employees to take if filing harassment complaints
- A guarantee that no retaliation will be taken if sexual harassment complaints are filed
- What to do if the complaint is about an immediate supervisor
Anti-harassment policies can also be included with new gym member information packets too.
For more information, see this page of the EEOC website.
Stopping Sexual Harassment Before It Starts
The best way to reduce sexual harassment in the gym is by taking action before it occurs. While educating staff and members on what sexual harassment is and instituting policies such as those outlined in this report can help, I think there is no better way to reduce it than to lead by example. Always strive to be professional and treat others with respect.