As fitness professionals, we spend significant amounts of quality time with our clients each week, often forming strong bonds. Many of our professional relationships become friendships, and the lines between professionalism and personal involvement become blurred. Even when we do our best to maintain professional boundaries, clients sometimes develop feelings or ideas about their relationship with us that challenge those boundaries.
It should come as no surprise when a client develops feelings for you. After all, you give them your undivided attention when you are together, you listen to their problems, provide encouragement and motivation, and you always greet them with a smile. On top of that, you are fit and attractive, and your job often involves physical contact. Whether you are male or female, your client may begin to see you as a potential mate, or they may fantasize about becoming more intimate with you.
Frequently a client’s crush escalates over time. You may miss early signs that they are becoming infatuated with you, and misinterpret early flirtation as kindness, or harmless joking. However, watch for warning signs that they are beginning to cross the line. Frequent text messages, unexpected gifts, excessive toughing, and violating your personal space may all be red flags that indicate things are heating up.
Once your client propositions you or makes sexual advances, you cannot put that genie back in the bottle. It is out there, and you will have to make tough decisions about how to deal with it. If the harassment came from a co-worker, you would have legal recourse, but when it comes from a client, things get messy. The harassment will be difficult to prove, and unless you were violently assaulted, you may have little legal ground on which to stake your claim.
Steps you can (and should) take when a client crosses the line:
- Make your feelings clear: As soon as you realize your client is flirting, ask them to stop. Remind them that your relationship with them is professional in nature, and that their behavior is threatening your career.
- Tell someone immediately: If you work in a gym or studio, let your manager or supervisor know what is going on. They may be able to intervene before things get out of hand.
- Document the incident: Make note of the date, time, place and circumstances where inappropriate behavior took place. If it is ongoing and escalating, make note of each incident. Also make note of anyone who may have witnessed the behavior.
- Retain evidence: Text messages, cards, gifts or any other physical evidence will help when the client denies wrongdoing.
- Terminate the relationship: It is impossible to restore your professional relationship with a client who has harassed you sexually. You will need to terminate the relationship. Your manager may be able to reassign the client to a new trainer, in which case you may still run into them from time to time.
- Remain professional: Some people do not take rejection well, and they can seriously damage your reputation and your career. It is important for you to remain polite and professional when you see the client at work or in public. Do not continue to talk about the incident with clients or co-workers, once it has been handled.
- Set boundaries early: Use the incident as a life lesson and set solid boundaries early on in future client relationships.
Whether you are employed by a gym or studio, or you work as an independent contractor, it is important to understand your legal rights and obligations as a fitness professional. W.I.T.S. has a number of online courses that detail the legal issues surrounding our industry. Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Management and Older Adult Fitness Specialist are all certification programs that provide insight into the legal side of things. Continuing education courses that may be useful include Club Management: Human Resources and Staffing. Do not wait until you are faced with a legal situation to learn about your rights, responsibilities and liability under the law.