Dating At The Gym: What’s Appropriate?

April 07, 2011

Fitness Coordinator, Johns Hopkins University

If you watch the Bravo television series “Workout,” you’ve seen the entertaining and sensationalized side of gym-culture, spliced in with some of the realities of personal training. Recently the series called into question the ramifications of intimate relationships in the workplace. Jackie Warner — the owner and managing director of Sky Sport and Spa, the Beverly Hills gym featured in the show — began dating one of her employees, a personal trainer. When questioned on the affair, she stated, “A gym is a very different environment than say a bank or corporate structured environment. I’ve dated other trainers that have worked for me. Trainers date clients. Clients date clients. I mean, there’s flexibility in our environment… It’s just an easy environment to date in.”

Perhaps you’ve seen this slippery slope before? After all, a successful fitness training relationship relies on personal knowledge of the client, trust in the trainer, close physical proximities, and honest conversation. A good supervisor takes care of her or his employees and makes them feel valued. Add in the social and recreational nature of a gym and any of these possible relationships has the potential to blur boundaries and grow into something that the workplace might regret later. What may seem benign and in fact positive to some can come back to bite the employees and supervisors faster than you can say “Sexual Harassment.”

At Johns Hopkins University, our fitness program has strict boundaries on employee dating. For example, stated in the “Grounds for Dismissal/Firing” section of our fitness employee manual, any personal trainer who has a sexual or romantic relationship with a client is subject to being removed from the staff. Period! Similarly, fitness supervisors are not permitted to date the employees they supervise because of the inequities incurred, whether real or construed. These ethical policies are discussed in our semester-long certification program, reiterated at the start of every school year or whenever a new trainer is hired, and documented in the handbook. Some of the trainers laugh when this is brought up (since some are likely enticed by the allure they anticipate having as a personal trainer!), but it is a clear line that is established in our program from the start – and constantly reinforced.
In the case of workplace dating, perception is everything! Concerns raised when hired trainers have dating/sexual relationships with paying clients, or when supervisors date employees include the following:

  • This practice may contradict your university’s policy on sexual harassment, workplace relationships, and nepotism.
  • Potential clientele or prospective qualified employees may be intimidated by the sexualized nature of the professional setting and not seek out opportunities or services in your department. For example, they may anticipate getting hit-on or feel they must act in an alluring way to participate in the program.
  • Current employees may feel discriminated against if a supervisor is perceived as favoring an employee because of an intimate relationship, and the same could be could be true for clients. Current employees and clients may be generally offended or discomforted by the lack of professional boundaries.
  • If personal trainers date clients, these student employees or clients will normalize behaviors that will not be tolerated in most other real-world workplaces when exchanging professional services for money; the same normalization is also true of intimate supervisor-employee relationships. In a sense, by tolerating or encouraging these relationships you are teaching poor job skills.
  • Intimate relationships that do start consensually and with the best of intentions have no guarantee of ongoing permanence or amicable endings. As soon as a relationship turns sour, that’s likely when the nuances of a sexual relationship between parties at different power levels will hit the fan (and haven’t we all seen a few bad break-ups that cause others to pick sides?).

Laying out clear expectations and diffusing potential problems ahead of time is the key to creating a professional fitness setting free of imperceptions and (at worst) sexual harassment claims. Pro-active suggestions for dealing with these relationship issues include:

  • Examine your university’s policy on sexual harassment, workplace dating, and nepotism, and consult your area HR representative. It is your supervisory obligation to understand this and to clarify this to your employees.
  • Determine and document your departmental policy is on workplace dating. Be clear about what is appropriate behavior for supervisors and personal trainers, what isn’t permissible, and what disciplinary action will occur to staff member(s) violating the policy. Review the policy yearly with all new staff and whenever an issue arises. It is also an act of good faith to list other professional staff who can be consulted if your staff perceives a problem with you.
  • If a situation does arise, obtain further information from the parties involved, discuss it with your supervisor, document it confidentially, and then follow through on the appropriate disciplinary action. Failing to follow through on your policies virtually rescinds them to null and void, so be sure to document the discipline as well.

Whatever situations arise at your gym, it is important to realize that workplace dating inevitably affects more people than just the two individuals involved, and may resonate in your department for months or even years down the road. In a positive workplace with good supervision and appropriate professional boundaries, clear policies should help to reduce or eliminate conflicts of interest before they begin.

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