By Jennifer Urmston Lowe,
National Account Manager, Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation
With recent headlines showing a growing number of claims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse across varying work places and industries, it is more important than ever to understand what sexual harassment is and how to prevent it in order to protect your members and employees, as well as, your fitness business.
What is Sexual Harassment?
According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as “a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of 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.”
The victim, as well as, the harasser can be male or female and the victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. 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 can also be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to the victim.
What does Sexual Harassment look like in the Workplace?
There are two types of workplace sexual harassment. The first is the “quid pro quo” or “If you do this, I will give you that” instance where employment decisions are based on the employee’s willingness to grant sexual favors or willingness to submit to unwelcome behavior. One instance is enough to support a claim.
The second type of workplace sexual harassment is a hostile work environment. Verbal or nonverbal behavior is unwanted, unwelcome or severe enough to affect the person’s work environment. Examples of this include graphic remarks about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to refer to an individual, offensive comments or “dirty jokes” and sexual innuendos or displays or sexually suggestive objects or pictures.
What does Sexual Harassment look like in a Fitness Business?
The same types of workplace sexual harassment can happen in a fitness business as discussed above. Additionally, due to the presence of clients and members inside of health clubs, gyms and fitness studios, there is also a potential for the sexual harassment of patrons.
Members, clients and guests to a health club or gym can be victims of unwanted sexual behavior by staff or other patrons. This can include both physical and verbal conduct of the same nature as outlined above in a hostile work environment.
Personal trainers, group exercise instructors and other fitness professionals who work one on one with clients are especially at risk for claims of sexual abuse as their work can involve touching and personal communication. It is highly important for all fitness professionals to keep their communication with clients professional at all times.
Health clubs and gyms with youth or children’s programing or a child watch area also have the potential for molestation, which would be any sexual behavior, verbal or nonverbal, wanted or unwanted towards a minor.
What can a fitness business do to prevent sexual harassment?
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission encourages employers “to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.”
As a fitness facility owner, the business should have established policies and procedures in place to reduce to chances of the sexual harassment of employees, members, and guests, including minors and children if applicable.
This can be achieved by distributing a written anti-sexual harassment policy and a written safety policy for molestation prevention for minors, using an established procedure for investigating reported incidents and providing training to all staff. Background checks should be performed on all staff, including but not limited to staff that work with children.
What should be included in a fitness facility’s anti-sexual harassment policy?
Your fitness business has a legal obligation to provide a workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment of any type. This means creating, disseminating and enforcing a written anti-sexual abuse policy. The policy should include but not be limited to the following:
A statement prohibiting harassment
Definition of harassment and examples of prohibited behaviors
Complaint procedures designed to encourage employees to raise complaints
A provision to bypass the immediate supervisor if the supervisor is the harasser
Assurance that a prompt, thorough and confidential investigation will take place
Assurance that if a violation is found, there will be prompt corrective action taken
Assurance that there will be no retaliation for reporting the harassment
Appropriate legal counsel should be consulted to provide guidance on the creation or modification of the anti-sexual harassment policy and it should be reviewed with legal counsel on a regular basis.
What can employees do?
Employees can help prevent sexual harassment by understanding and adhering to company policies, as well as, being watchful. Employees should pay attention to their coworkers and members. All staff should avoid inadvertent offense by keeping communication professional. Employees can look for subtle forms of harassment from other staff members towards coworkers, members or guests. Employees should report any instances of possible sexual harassment immediately.
How does insurance cover a fitness facility for sexual harassment?
First, the risk of claims for sexual harassment or discrimination of employees would be covered by an Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) policy. This is usually a separate policy from the Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy written for a health club, gym or fitness studio, although the CGL may include a sublimit for EPLI. This coverage is intended to protect the employer from claims made by employees. It is written on a Claims Made Basis and can be obtained at different liability limits from $100,000 per occurrence to $1,000,000.
Second, the Commercial General Liability (CGL) should include coverage for Sexual Abuse and Molestation (SAM) for a fitness facility. The limit of coverage may be less than the full limits of the CGL unless an additional premium is paid. Limits, again, can vary from $100,000 per occurrence to $1,000,000. Almost all carriers now require back ground checks for all staff for the SAM coverage to be offered. Most carriers also require written procedures for preventing the molestation of minors, including a written procedure that adults are not alone with minors, for the SAM coverage to be included when children are present in the health club, gym or fitness studio.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment, sexual abuse and molestation in a workplace or fitness business. This article is intended to provide education and general guides lines to understand and prevent sexual harassment and encourage fitness business owners and managers to seek the involvement of appropriate legal counsel in establishing a harassment policy and guidelines for the prevention of sexual abuse in their workplaces.