Behind the Scenes
Sexual harassment Photo by Thinkstock.

Yes, the Fitness Industry Also Has Its Abusers of Power

The health club industry is not immune to sexual harassment issues, and now is the time to set up a no-tolerance policy and training if you haven't already.

During the past few months, men in positions of power within politics, the media, Hollywood, technology and other industries have faced accusations of sexual harassment. You may look at these accusations and wonder why those industries are so prone to these types of incidents, but don't be deceived; that type of behavior occurs in every industry—yes, even the fitness industry. You have to look no further than the allegations of sexual harassment and rape against Bikram Yoga founder Bikram Choudhury to see one example. 

If you are a woman, you have likely experienced sexual harassment at some point in your life—often more than once. It may have been when you were a babysitter for a family whose father said inappropriate things to you. It may have been when you worked as a camp counselor and the older male counselor did something inappropriate. It may have been when you started as a group exercise instructor and were asked to do something that made you feel uncomfortable at your audition for your first job. Maybe it was when you were a trainer and your director belittled you for your appearance. Or maybe it was just when you were walking down the street and were harassed by a man.

The common factor in all of these cases is that the person doing the harassing felt they were in the superior position and could use that position to belittle, harass or intimidate the other person.

The fitness industry still has a disproportionate number of male owners and men in upper management. Look at the top 10 clubs on the Top 100 Clubs list, and you'll see that the majority of them have a male owner, male CEO, male COO and male CFO. Look around at your own fitness facility. Although we are seeing more female owners and women moving into leadership roles, the majority of clubs still skew more toward men in ownership and upper management.

Not all men use their power to abuse those they oversee. But power can corrupt, especially those who feel powerless in other areas of their lives and use the one area they have gained power to compensate.

The women who have spoken up in Hollywood, the media, politics and the tech industry are to be commended, but they are in industries that allow their voices to be heard more prominently.

Industries such as retail, food service and fitness employ a lot of women in lower paying jobs, so the fear of losing their job because of speaking out against their harassers can cause silence. Every woman must make up her own mind if she wants to share her story.

However, health club owners and operators must take a stand to show that they don't practice this abuse of power and won't stand for this abuse of power in their ranks. Here are a few things that you can do to help:

  • Set a good example. Treat your employees—male and female—with the respect that you would want someone treating your son or daughter.
  • Ensure you are giving women the same opportunity to advance into management as you give the men on your staff. People often hire and promote those they are most comfortable with and those they see as being closest to themselves. Perhaps it's time to change that and look to hire those who can offer something different from you as a balance.
  • Create mentorship programs where women who have advanced in your company can mentor younger women and empower them.  
  • Set up a no-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and a prevention training program. Your policy should share what sexual harassment is, that it is not acceptable at your facility, how to report it and how it will be addressed if it occurs. Ensure all of your employees and managers (and yourself) are aware of this policy and take this training on a yearly basis. And make sure this training encompasses interactions with members, which is another area of possible liability related to sexual harassment.
  • Be prepared in advance for how you will investigate claims of sexual harassment and what happens to the accused and the accuser during the investigation.
  • Talk to your lawyer and your insurance company about what else you should be doing.

 Share with us what you are doing to ensure that your employees and members are protected. 

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