How to Address Problematic Members and Guests While Minimizing Legal Risk and Damage to Your Brand
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Paul R. Bedard, Esquire
The typical health club sees tens of thousands of individual customer visits in any given month. Although most members and guests will visit a health club without issue, human nature, combined with the sheer volume of human interaction associated with these visits, dictates that there will inevitably be members and guests whose usage creates problems within the club.
Like anything else in life, taking a proactive approach to anticipate the various types of issues that will arise is far more effective than impulsively reacting to problems as they present themselves. Formulating and communicating clear rules and procedures and regularly training personnel to consistently and effectively enforce these requirements is key to minimizing legal risk while also diminishing the prospect of negative social media reviews and other commentary aimed at tarnishing the club's reputation.
When having to suspend or terminate someone's membership or guest privileges, the primary legal risk involved is that of a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Although many view health clubs as private entities, health clubs are considered places of public accommodation. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or disability in places of public accommodation. Varying state laws add additional protected classes including but not limited to age, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Although the person bringing a lawsuit has the burden to prove that discrimination has transpired, the potential number of protected classes within the relevant jurisdiction means that most disgruntled members subject to a membership suspension or cancellation can likely point to an alleged discriminatory motive behind their loss of privileges.
Employee training and documentation are crucial to mitigating legal risk. Club rules governing acceptable conduct should, at a minimum, be clearly delineated within the membership agreement and employee handbook. Employees must be aware of these posted expectations and trained on how to properly approach a member or guest in violation of these rules. Some prohibited conduct, such as failing to wipe down equipment as required or violating a cell phone policy, may simply require a verbal warning whereas more serious behaviors, such as theft from a locker room or physical violence, will warrant the immediate termination of someone's membership or guest privileges. However, whatever the level of the violation, employees need to be trained on what to say and, just as importantly, how to say it. Therefore, employee training should include role playing various scenarios to ensure that these types of issues are addressed with maximum effectiveness and with minimal drama.
Regardless of the measures that need to be taken, these actions should be taken consistently and fairly. Documentation should occur throughout the process. Incident reports, written warnings and other relevant documentation should be placed within the member's file for future reference. Witness statements should be promptly obtained when serious violations occur to support documentation by club personnel. Any available surveillance footage should be readily secured. A demonstrated track record of fairly and consistently handling problematic members and guests despite the parties involved, along with an abundance of supporting documentation, will help tremendously with the club's defense should discrimination be unjustly alleged.
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