Most employers impose zero-tolerance policies when it comes to sexual harassment. But what should we do if we’re the recipients of this unwanted attention?
A male colleague found himself in this awkward position when we were rookie trainers at a big box gym. A female client who was old enough to be his mother (and to know better) began flirting with him during sessions, sending “affectionate” text messages, and generally behaving inappropriately.
He remained professional and tried to resolve the situation tactfully, but she persisted. Finally, the trainer brought the matter to the personal training director’s attention, and the client was informed that her sessions would be canceled without refund if her behavior continued. She was transferred to another trainer, and subsequently apologized.
While the trainer lost a hard-earned client (and many of us know about those big-box session quotas), it was worth it not to have his fledgling career disrupted by a client’s disrespectful behavior.
The stress and discomfort of being subjected to sexual harassment as a personal trainer could potentially derail a promising trainer. No trainer needs this added challenge, especially if someone else is the cause.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of unwanted attention from a male client, whom I trained at the request of his wife. She was happy with my training, and I was pleased with her referral. Unfortunately, her husband began “complimenting” me on my fitness, refused to tell me his age (again, old enough to know better), and making flirtatious comments.
After he announced that he wanted to have a drink during a session, I directed him to the water fountain. When he replied, “No, I mean a real drink,” I took him to the weight room and reminded him why he was in the gym, much to the amusement of some other guys who were working out. I then informed the personal training director (a Marine), who offered to step in. The client was a no-show for the last session in his training package, and never returned. Game over.
Here are 6 things to do when a client is sexually harassing you:
1. Speak up. If any aspect of a client’s behavior or comments cause discomfort, honor that instinct. We don’t allow excuses for clients around exercise and nutrition, and they don’t belong here either. Don’t hesitate to establish policies and define the relationship from the outset. If a client can’t comply, they’re not a good fit for you anyway. Someone else will be.
2. Document any inappropriate behavior. This includes the date, time, location, names, and a brief summary of the facts. If the incident was witnessed or overheard, be aware of that and obtain names and contact information. A spin instructor was able to have a member permanently banned from his class based on complaints from others about her suggestive dress and behavior, which they also considered to be disruptive and inappropriate.
3. Retain any evidence. Text messages, notes, gifts, etc should all be retained. A member once had his membership canceled because he continued to call and send flowers to a trainer after he was instructed to stop.
4. Inform management. If an incident report is required, complete it with as much detail as possible, and retain a copy signed by a manager. This will protect you and the employer if a “She said, he said” situation occurs, and/or further action is required.
5. Ensure the manager intervenes. The manager should begin by speaking to the member and reinforcing the gym policies, and trainers should know them as well. These might include transferring them to a different trainer, removing them from the program, or possibly canceling their membership. No trainer should be expected to tolerate this behavior, and the aforementioned session quotas are not the priority in this situation. If support is inadequate at the gym level, contact human resources. In extreme cases, consult an attorney specializing in workplace issues.
6. Get sexual harassment coverage. The same recommendations apply for independent trainers, but professional liability insurance with sexual harassment coverage is a must for women as well as men.
Focus on prevention
It’s been said that the best cure for many illnesses is prevention, and the same rationale can apply for sexual harassment in the workplace. The best trainers make it clear that we take the profession seriously, keep sessions fun while retaining the leadership role, and create and maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect. When these elements are in place, both the trainer and the client can reach their goals without any misunderstanding or drama.