Employment Law Fundamentals for Health Clubs

Educate yourself and your club's staff to avoid and/or deal with possible problems.

As a club operator, hiring, managing, retaining—and sometimes firing—your employees are among the biggest challenges that you face. And in today’s work world, people tend to switch jobs with increasing frequency, so you never know when you’ll need to replace a staff member.

Finding the right professionals for important positions for your business can keep it on track; choosing the wrong ones can cause chaos among your members and staff, and hurt your reputation in your community—or even worse.

As you travel the continuum of the hiring process—through the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring phases—each one of those steps needs to be taken wisely and thoughtfully. If you and your staff aren’t careful, legal issues may develop unexpectedly—and, under the worst circumstances, entangle your business in lawsuits that could have been easily avoided.

So, it’s best to be aware—and prepared.

Because having at least a general understanding of employment law is vital to your success, IHRSA is at the ready with some valuable resources that can help to clarify some of the issues, and eliminate some confusion and missteps.

To inspire you to examine your current hiring practices, we offer the following three scenarios that could easily arise at any time in any club. We urge you to consider them before you need to make necessary changes in your staff.

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Nondiscriminatory Decisions

Your club is searching for a person to replace a front desk manager.

Two of your senior staff members interview a number of candidates for the position, and then narrow the field to two applicants. One is a woman in her mid-twenties, and the other is a man in his late thirties. Your staffers feel that they need to have one more conversation with each person to determine which individual is the best fit for the job.

Once those additional interviews have been completed, one staffer says she’d prefer the woman, as, in her view, women tend to be more organized, and younger working professionals can offer a fresher business perspective. In passing, she also mentions her reservations when she saw a gay pride pin fixed to the male candidate’s briefcase. Even after receiving some pushback from other managers, she chooses to hire the woman solely based on these factors.

Is this hiring decision legal? No, it isn’t.

Employers may not discriminate against applicants based on race, gender, pregnancy, age (40 or older), religion, national origin, citizenship status, military or veteran status, genetic information, or disability. Note that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that obesity may qualify as a dis- ability under federal law.

Finally, discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal in the District of Columbia, as well as in 22 states, and in many cities and counties across the country.

“Employers may not discriminate against applicants based on race, gender, pregnancy, age (40 or older), religion, national origin, citizenship status, military or veteran status, genetic information, or disability.”

Protection for Ex-abusers

Given the fact that many people are struggling with opioid addiction these days, you may encounter someone who’s had a problem with drugs as you interview candidates for positions on your staff.

In fact, this issue comes up as one of your staffers interviews a candidate for a personal trainer slot. He’s thoroughly impressed by the candidate’s credentials, but becomes very wary when he hears the individual’s answer to his final question. He asks the candidate to describe a time when he overcame a personal or professional challenge. The answer is a detailed description of his five-year struggle with drug addiction, and how he finally beat it.

Your manager ends the interview, and thanks the candidate for his time. Ultimately, he decides that hiring this man with a history of drug abuse could cause problems should this difficult issue resurface, so he emails the candidate the next day to tell him the bad news.
Is this decision legal? No, it isn’t.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects former users of illegal drugs.

However, if there’s some proof that the applicant still has a problem with drugs, then it would be legal for your manager to refuse to hire him.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects former users of illegal drugs.”

To Fire or Not to Fire

You’re concerned that, during the last quarter, your payroll costs rose, while your membership sales numbers missed your target. You make the difficult decision to terminate some employees to lower your expenses.

Regretfully, you select several individuals, and tell them what you’ve decided to do. Initially, they try to bargain with you, and fight your decision, but eventually agree to leave.

Is it legal for you to fire them? Yes, it is.

Most people are “at-will” employees, which means they’re employed at the will of both the employer and employee. Either party is free to terminate the relationship for any legal reason with or without cause or notice.

However, it would be illegal to fire an employee for a discriminatory reason, or for an action that constituted “wrongful discharge.” Wrongful discharge occurs when someone is fired in violation of the law or when there is a breach of an implied contract.

As you consider these scenarios, make sure to identify a knowledgeable, experienced attorney who specializes in employment law, and develop a good relationship with that individual. You’ll want to be able to call on them for advice on these issues, or others, that are sure to arise.

View more IHRSA resources about employment law.

Author avatar

Shannon Vogler @vogler_shannon

Shannon Vogler is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for IHRSA. Shannon writes articles, press releases, and the IHRSA Advocate newsletter to make IHRSA members aware of policy issues that impact health clubs. She also speaks with media influencers about the benefits of working out and joining a gym. When she's not writing, Shannon enjoys running and cheering for the New England Patriots.