Why Your Gym Should Have a Harassment Policy

There's a chance at some point your club will deal with complaints of harassment. The best way to protect your business is with a harassment policy.

  • Shannon Vogler
  • October 01, 2017

Harassment, in any form, and for any reason—whether predicated on age, gender, race, religion, or other factors—is a minefield issue that no business wants to cross.

In the case of health clubs, the problem might arise in relationships between management and staff, managers and subordinates, or staff/trainers and club members. Any one of the combinations holds the potential to create, at the very least, serious difficulties, and, at the worst, chaos.

Harassment is a subtle concept, and it comes in many forms, some subdued and some overt. Similarly, the reactions to it can range from raised eyebrows, to anger, to counter words and/or measures.

In the case of clubs, the results could include discomfort or distrust between individuals—management, staff, and/or members; reduced club utilization; increased attrition; a stain on the club’s reputation; and unkind critiques on social media and in the local press.

Article image

In extreme cases, harassment also may lead to formal complaints or lawsuits.

Harassment, in fact, is a form of discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency charged with enforcement of federal antidiscrimination laws—defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that’s based on age, sex (including pregnancy status), race, disability, religion, place of national origin, or genetic information. Such behavior is unlawful when: (1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of employment; or (2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough as to interfere with an employee’s work performance and create an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive” working environment.

You may, fortunately, never have had to deal with any complaints of this sort in the past … but there’s a chance that, at some point in the future, you will.

According to the EEOC, in 2016 alone, employees filed 23,528 charges of harassment against their employers. A staggering 6,758 (28.7%) of those claims had to do with sexual harassment.

“Harassment, in fact, is a form of discrimination.”

Given that harassment is a problematic and enduring issue, one of the best ways to protect your business is to create a policy that addresses the subject directly, communicate its contents to staff, and post a copy of it for your members to read. Because each club operates differently, there’s no universal policy that’s appropriate for all. However, the EEOC has published valuable guidelines you should consider as you decide on your own standards.

In general, the EEOC requires that every employer’s policy clearly state that it won’t tolerate harassment in any form. It should also make it equally clear that the employer won’t tolerate retaliation against anyone who complains about harassment, or against anyone who participates in an investigation of harassment.

Specifically, the agency recommends that policies contain the following content:

  • Definitions of harassment and sexual harassment: You may begin with those identified by the EEOC, but be sure to include examples of the type of conduct that you won’t allow.
  • A clear statement of your commitment: Emphasize that you intend to conduct a business that’s free of discrimination and harassment, explaining that both are prohibited by state and federal law.
  • An explanation of your complaint procedure: Make sure both your employees and members are able to take a complaint to more than one person. If, for instance, your policy were to say that all complaints must be addressed to an employee’s manager, and their manager was the offender, then it would be worthless.
  • An explanation of the investigative procedure: It should be both prompt and confidential, and, when it comes to sexual harassment, it’s a good idea to have both a woman and a man on the investigating team. Studies have shown that the genders have different perceptions as to what constitutes harassment.
  • Your guarantee of no retaliation: This rule holds regardless of the outcome of the complaint.
  • Your assurance of confidentiality: It should extend to all parties and witnesses involved to the maximum extent that’s practical.
  • A statement of the consequences: Your policy should clearly indicate that anyone found guilty of harassment at the conclusion of an investigation will be subject to discipline, which, when appropriate, may include discharge, or, in the case of a member, expulsion.

Once you’ve drafted your policy, be sure to review and finalize it. Depending on the size of your operation, you may want to form a working group to do so. Ideally, an attorney should conduct the final review.

The final step in the process is to implement your new policy. You need to ensure that all of your employees and members know about it and are familiar with its details. To guarantee that both groups are well informed, consider, first, what sources they generally utilize to obtain information. Some employers discuss their harassment policy in staff memos or newsletters, and some post it on a private online portal.

Another alternative is to distribute a printed copy of your policy to staff and members, and ask them to return a signed copy. Filing these signed documents provides proof that the policy was distributed, read, and understood by all parties.

The method you choose to share this important document with staff and members depends on preferences—yours and theirs. It’s a matter of style.

If you take the time to follow these simple steps, then the issue of harassment will be on your radar, and, in the event that an incident occurs, you’ll be prepared to identify it quickly and manage it effectively. It’s one of the most important ways you can protect your brand.

Employment Law Resources

Club operators need to be aware of employment laws regulations and legal responsibilities, such as overtime pay, illegal discrimination, or wrongful discharge. To help, we created Briefing Papers on:

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.