Q: I work in a gym. One of our fitness instructors was recently fired over problematic patterns of behavior involving young women. He’s in his mid-30s, and the amount and type of attention he was paying to clients in the 16- to 20-year-old range was pretty disturbing — nothing that crossed a legal boundary, but stuff that seemed like grooming behavior over a long period of time. To my knowledge, none of the clients ever complained, but all of the other staff recognized it and were uncomfortable. The final incident that got him fired involved him using his hands to “coach” an 18-year-old in a way that should never be part of fitness instruction. I work in an at-will state, and our boss decided it would be easier to not tell him the actual reason he was fired, which obviously caused him to feel distressed and confused about his termination. He is now working at another gym, and I feel torn over whether any further action is necessary.
Part of me wonders if he would get help for his behaviors if someone pointed them out to him, and part of me also wants to warn his new job. Any advice on whether either of those things is appropriate for this situation? — “Trying to Avoid the Missing Stair”
A: Congratulations to your boss, I guess, on successfully making a potential predator someone else’s problem before any customers complained about him.
Meanwhile, how many of your female clients quietly changed their schedules to avoid this guy, or just stopped showing up altogether and warned their friends away? Because I guarantee they noticed his behavior, even the ones who lacked the experience to fully grasp how inappropriate this 30-something was behaving because they were — and I can’t emphasize this enough — teenage girls.
For that matter, even sophisticated, experienced adult women have the right to a creep-free workout.
The first time one of you noticed Handsy McGroomer’s wink-wink-not-technically-illegal shenanigans, the boss should have pulled the guy into his office, stated what was observed, explained why it was a problem, and outlined the correct alternative. Even if the instructor genuinely hadn’t realized his habit of fawning exclusively over female clients 10 years younger was out of line, he would know better from that point on. And the boss would have had clear grounds to fire him if he failed to shape up.
Unfortunately, your boss’s wink-wink at-will cop-out has either left a clueless dude to fumble his way into further trouble, or given a creep plausible deniability to continue preying elsewhere.
I don’t mean to implicate you or your fellow staffers in this. It’s not easy to take action when the strategy from the top is avoidance. But you’re on the right track when you refer to your former colleague as a “missing stair” — a problematic individual in a group whose other members know to avoid and try to warn newcomers about. In an employment context, a missing-stair employee is especially hazardous because when it comes to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, “we all noticed and were uncomfortable but tiptoed around it” is not the defense you want to present.
So what is a well-meaning bystander-who-wants-to-become-an-upstander to do?
Justice, in my mind, would be for your boss to have to go confess to the new gym owner that he passed along a potentially toxic candidate like a used tumbling mat covered with pox virus. But unless you’re convinced your former co-worker is an imminent threat, I’m leery of suggesting you go do that dirty work for him. For one, it still wouldn’t do anything to address the behavior if the new boss just fires the guy, no questions asked. And if your former colleague learns about a whisper campaign or the truth of his previous firing, he might well be angry and humiliated enough to try to retaliate, legally or physically.
If you believe your former colleague would be mortified and reform his behavior if alerted to it, then it would be a kindness to him, and an act of heroism to womankind, for a friend to call him in. Knowing how to have that conversation well after the fact and out of the blue is trickier. But if you want to try, I recommend searching online under “upstander sexual harassment” for examples of scripts and approaches.
Finally, what if your workplace used this experience as impetus to adopt some conduct policies, instead of relying on everyone to just sort of know what’s appropriate? Gym health and safety policies aren’t just for workout equipment. Staff training on acceptable and unacceptable teaching techniques, a policy manual for staff-client interactions, a client list of rights and responsibilities, and protocols for handling concerns would ensure that cluelessness is no excuse.
Pushing for preventive policy change probably doesn’t feel as righteous and direct as reporting or confronting your former colleague, but it has the highest probability of protecting a lot more people.
Maybe your chance to fix this particular missing stair has passed. But there will always be another rotten step to fix. And you don’t have to wait till then to install handrails.